Jason Scott Alexander
After nearly a decade hiatus since the band’s last album, super indie producer and mixer Peter Katis (The National, Interpol, Jónsi of Sigur Rós, Tokyo Police Club, Mates of State), together with his brother Tarquin and drummer Adam Pierce, have succinctly answered the very question posed in their coyly titled new release, If a Band Plays in the Woods... (Tarquin Records).
In fact, the Philistines Jr. have been playing in the woods of suburban Connecticut for 20 years, where Peter’s incredibly outfitted, top-of-the-line home recording studio captures the band’s charming, visionary sound. As with most Philistines Jr. records, the new album combines rock instrumentation, vibraphone, and glockenspiel as cornerstones, with oftentimes radical shifts between outboard-mangled vintage guitars, $60 Casio keyboards, and homemade electronic instruments.
On “A Trip Down the Rooster River,” a track that Katis just couldn’t make work vocally, for instance, he enlisted the mysterious Dewanatron “dual primate console,” played simultaneously by lifelong best friend and inventor, Leon Dewan, and his cousin, Brian Dewan. “It’s this crazy monstrosity with actual telephone dials, and all these multiple oscillators and sequencers that have to be hand-tuned,” says Katis.
“It’s putting out one signal, but it’s doing a bunch of totally different things with weird modulations. How they control it, I don’t know. It’s like trying to play a Theremin on a boat at sea,” he laughs.
Knowing how unwieldy the instrument can be, Katis went into recording with clear instructions. “I was like, look, this is the chord progression I want, so let’s try and get something as in tune and not totally insane as possible. I knew it would be more than insane enough.”
The record also features an old Lowrey console organ, dueling Theremins played by virtuoso Rob Schwimmer, and a super-rare (Gibson) Clavioline, the instrument responsible for the bagpipe sound in The Beatles’ Baby You’re a Rich Man and the solo in Del Shannon’s Runaway. “Very, very haunted house,” says Katis.
For lo-fi rhythms, he resurrected an old Farfisa from his growing combo-organ graveyard. “I don’t remember the model number, but it’s a very unusual organ that has this really elaborate sequencer. I spent a lot of time playing with that, turning off most of the things (like drums) that you would normally have on, leaving just these weird, quirky elements.”
But it’s an old ARP PE-IV String Ensemble that Katis concedes as being one of his secret weapons. “If you stick it in and play very few notes, or just a single note that can harmonize over the whole chord progression, it can add this sort of melancholy that nothing else I know of can.” Because of the ARP’s over-the-top ’80s New Wave sheen, he likes to overdrive it, “a lot . . . mangling the top end a bit so you can place it so low in a mix that it doesn’t get in the way. Listen to records I’ve made; it’s always there. People make fun of it, but it’s there because it works.”
Read the complete interview with Peter Katis HERE.