Singer/musician Daniel Lannon takes notes on Chris Chan’s drum part. All photos: Molly DeCoudreaux
The Frail’s latest, Love Death Legend, has that combo of synth-pop glamour and darkness that have captivated San Francisco Bay Area’s indie/club scene, now with a percussive punch that producer Patrick Brown feels is essential to taking the band to the next level.
“The demos of these songs had thinner drums, but on the final versions, some of the songs have five bass tracks. Some have three drum kits going,” Brown says. “And we made sure the kick came through. To make that low end really happen, they needed to go the extra mile.”
Brown was in on The Frail’s song creation from almost the very first writing sessions between lead singer/musician Danny Lannon and his bandmate multi-instrumentalist Kevin Durr.
“In the past, Kevin and I would email parts of songs back and forth and piece them together until we had a clear sense of what the song was, musically,” says Lannon, whose at-home composing tools include Logic, Garageband, and Ableton Live as well as traditional instruments. On Love Death Legend, however, with Brown producing, they shook up and slowed down their process. Writing sessions mainly happened with Brown in the mix, in the rooms above Different Fur, the longtime San Francisco studio that Brown has owned and operated for 10 years.
“I was Patrick’s assistant at the time, and I was actually crashing in the third story office above Different Fur,” recalls Jorge Hernandez, who engineered the album. “A lot happened in that upstairs room.”
Brown and Hernandez set up a Pro Tools system and a few mics for live band recording. “I live in an apartment above the studio, too,” Brown explains. “We were writing up there for a couple of months with a simple drum kit—kick, snare, hi-hat—a tiny practice amp, some synths, bass direct, and everything into Pro Tools. We laid down all these sketches, and by the end of those sessions I think we had about 60 demos.”
“We would let those demos marinate; Patrick and the musicians would decide which songs had potential, Izzy [Israel Chavarin] would add a bass line and make everything sound funky,” Hernandez says. “They had other friends come in and play. Everybody was into it. The chemistry was a big part of the record.”
“A lot of the things we did in the songwriting process, we kept,” Brown says. “We were essentially refining demos over and over. Kevin would build something and I would say, ‘It’s great, but let’s replace the stock Ableton sound you used with a real instrument. I’m a big fan of mixing electronic and live; add a live bass line or have somebody play keys, and it will all swing a bit more.”
Producer/Different Fur owner Patrick Brown (left) and engineer Jorge Hernandez at the SSL console. All of the sounds from the demo stage were on the table, to be kept or replaced; eventually the project moved down to Studio A, with a bigger kit and bass and guitar amps in the main room, and synths all DI’d in the control room, where Hernandez manned the SSL 4000 console.
“We had skeleton tracks, demos, and keepers from upstairs,” Hernandez says. “Then Patrick would decide to layer a whole track with live drums, or to take out the electronic drums and just leave the live drums or vice versa. Drums were the first things we knocked out in Studio A. Then came bass lines, which by then were all already written; we just had to re-record them through Izzy’s RC Davis amp, live. Then came all the synths, and some of those parts we definitely kept from the demos. Some of those tones were irreplaceable.”
Lannon’s vocals were among the last elements to be overdubbed, with Lannon standing in the center of the tracking room, singing into his favorite mic. “I really like the Shure SM7B. Since my voice is a little bit high, it picks up the register of my voice really well.”
Hernandez used the preamp, EQ, and compression in the SSL console, as well as an LA2A compressor on Lannon’s voice. “Everything went through the SSL during recording and mixing. That SSL is my favorite console,” says Hernandez, himself a valued asset to the project.
“I made sure Jorge engineered it because I’ve worked with him a lot and I know his style,” Brown says. “There are a lot of beats on the album where you can’t really discern what’s electronic and what’s a live kit—a lot of it is really overlaid—and then a hi-hat or a tom will pop out in certain spots and come into focus. Jorge comes from a hip hop perspective, and I knew he could make the tracks hit the way we wanted.”