Veruca Salt Records 'Ghost Notes'

1990s grunge stars Veruca Salt reunite for new album with their original engineer/producer, Brad Wood
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What triggered the reunion of smash ’90s alt-rock band Veruca Salt? Another band reunion: “Now that we’re finally back together, Nina and I feel like ‘What the hell were we waiting for?’” says Veruca Salt cofrontwoman Louise Post. “Yet, all the stars had to align and the timing had to be perfect on a June evening in 2012 when Nina heard that Mazzy Star was playing Coachella. She said that it ‘scratched her soul.’ Something in her was really bugged by that—not by Mazzy Star, but by the fact that we weren’t doing it.”

Post’s former songwriting, guitar-playing, and singing counterpart, Nina Gordon, couldn’t ignore that “scratch,” so she composed an email, suggesting that they get together for the first time in years. “We reconnected via email—about stuff that had nothing to do with music,” Post says. “We got together for dinner and we closed the restaurant down.”

Veruca Salt originated in Chicago, but Post and Gordon both live in the L.A. area now—only about 15 minutes apart, it turns out—and the band’s original bassist, Steve Lack, lives in San Diego. When drummer Jim Shapiro, Gordon’s brother, traveled west from Chicago for a visit, the foursome decided it was time for a band reunion—socially at first.

“It was just to see each other,” Post says. “We shared stories, cracked jokes incessantly, and we all apologized for a million things that were in the past. We left it with the agreement that we would get together and play. We didn’t know what shape that would take—if it would just be a reunion show, or if we would write new music. But I think I had an inkling even then that as soon as Nina and I would play and sing together, we would want to start writing, and we did.”

“The songwriting process for us is totally different now, though,” Gordon says. “Back in the day, for American Thighs [the band’s debut album, 1994], Louise and I wrote separately, with few exceptions. We’d write in our respective houses and bring in a song pretty much fully formed. There was a lot of collaboration on arrangements, and certainly we’d bounce ideas off of each other, but the basic song structure was intact.

“Now it’s much more of a collaborative process— partly because we’re much more comfortable doing that,” Gordon continues. “We feel less precious about our individual voice—lyrically and literally, our singing voice. We were in our 20s and we thought that everything that came out of our mouths was gold. Now we feel like, if you’ve got a better idea, I’d love to hear it. It’s been really fun [to write with Louise], and it’s practical because neither of us has a ton of time on our hands. We both have young children. Sometimes what makes sense is just to write a chorus and then say, ‘Hey, can you help me with a verse?’”

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“It can feel like a lot of pressure to write on my own,” Post agrees. “Now, we literally share the songs.”

The writing process may have changed for Veruca Salt, but the immediate feeling on hearing their new album, Ghost Notes, is that no time has passed since the original lineup last recorded together. The sweet but edgy vocal harmonies, Post and Gordon’s aggressive two-guitar attack and clever songs, Shapiro’s inventive drumming, Lack’s musical and rock-steady bass—all still there, and then some. And who better to capture the sound of the revitalized original Veruca Salt than their original producer? The band knew they had to call Brad Wood.

The band recorded in producer/engineer Brad Wood's personal studio. Wood is a transplant as well; he moved from Chicago to Southern California a dozen years ago, and produces and engineers in a studio built into a guest house on his property. “It was great to get a message from Louise in 2013—I think on Facebook—and then we talked on the phone for hours,” Wood says. “She and I had lost touch as well, but she’s in a great place now with her family and her career. It was nice just catching up. But to hear her describe how the band had re-formed was really heartwarming, because there’s some real magic there—not just creatively, but also as friends. I knew that the first time I saw them play, before they ever recorded with me.

“In some ways everything’s changed for them, and in some ways nothing has,” Wood continues. “They all still sound on their instruments like they are as people. Jim is more confident as a drummer now than he was in 1994, but he plays the same way. His taste in drum fills is unchanged, and he still plays things that would never occur to me, and pulls them off. He plays to the song—accents that might just be in the vocals—or he’ll capture a little bit of what Nina is doing on acoustic guitar. He delights me as an engineer, because the creativity is the same, and the execution is so much improved. He was a brand-new drummer when they started.

“Steve is one of the reasons that Jim can do some of the crazy things he does. He’s like a clock, Big Ben, but he’s got a subtle biting sense of humor. Nina and Louise are really intense. They always mean business when they’re working on their songs. It’s not a casual job to record this band. There’s drama and emotion, and lots and lots of laughs. They’re my version of Fleetwood Mac. And I worked on this album for a year-and-a-half.”

Veruca Salt visited Wood’s studio to track clusters of songs, to Pro Tools, whenever Shapiro could be in L.A. Their first priority in every session with the drummer was to nail down his parts, because of the physical distance he had to travel. But Wood, now as then, has no interest in isolated drum tracking. He insists that the entire band perform on every track, including vocals, to protect the feel and structure of the song.

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“They don’t need to sing every word,” Wood says. “We may replace all the guitars and all of the bass, but being in the same room, feeling the energy, using eye contact to cue section changes or the length of a pause—that’s essential.”

Wood’s drum-miking scheme includes some of the same models he’s been favoring since before he tracked American Thighs. His go-to kick drum mic is an Audio-Technica ATM25. “I’ve been using that since 1989. I will never ever get rid of it,” he says. “But I used no outside mic on kick on these sessions. It didn’t seem to be adding anything, so I got rid of it.”

Wood used Shure Beta 98s on snare top and bottom, Sennheiser 421s or Shure KSM44s on toms, and overheads were AKG 451s with Red Microphones R47 capsules. Hi-hat was captured with an AKG 451 as well, and room mics were a pair of Studio Projects CS5s, set in omni. “Those used to be $700 mics,” Wood notes. I can’t believe how cheap those are. They’re great mics, and they’re only about half that price now.”

Farther along the drum-recording chain, “I’m a really big fan of the original Neve 9098 rackmount preamp/EQs,” Wood says. “They sound like 1081s to me—very present, which I really like on kick. I also like a Tonelux mic pre on snare, and the Rupert Neve Designs Shelford preamp. I used a TL Audio Tube Tracker on overheads and room mics; that has a top end that I find really appealing for cymbals.”

Lack’s bass went through a Radial JDI into a Line 6 Bass Pod Pro rack unit that Wood says “sounds amazing,” noting that some of the bass parts from Shapiro’s drum sessions were keepers, but others were re-tracked.

Post and Gordon’s explosive guitar sounds emerge from a variety of instruments, amps, and cabinets—some of their own and some of Wood’s. “I played rhythm guitar on my Melody Maker. It’s got a P90 that we put in,” says Gordon. “Mostly I played through Brad’s Alessandro Beagle.”

“Alessandro makes custom amps, and I bought a Beagle used, ten years ago,” Wood explains. “It’s a monster sound that doesn’t work well live because it’s not super loud, but it’s a great studio amp, and we used it on a lot of the big, fuzzy chorus sections. I also put that through a Mesa Boogie 2x12 cabinet. Louise, in particular, had a lot of pedals; tons and tons and tons of pedals.”

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“We are Gibson girls,” Post says. “I strayed from that path, regrettably, during our hiatus; what was I thinking? Now I’m playing my brown, ’70s SG and Les Paul Red Cherry semi-hollow body, as well as a very old Gibson I have—I think it’s a 225 hollow body. I may have also played Brad’s Tele sometimes. Teles always bring something different that’s nice.”

Post used her Orange amp and a Mesa Boogie Rectifier Tremoverb as well as Wood’s Beagle. “I also played through a Roccaforte, which is a fierce low-end distortion monster amp, and a Fender Twin at times,” she says. Wood captured everything with Rupert Neve Designs RNR1 and Voodoo VR2 microphones.

“I’ve given up using anything other than ribbons on loud guitars,” Wood says. “I also use a room mic, back 20 to 30 feet, to give things some stereo imagery and a little more depth.”

On the vocal side, Post and Gordon’s harmonies are as beautiful as their guitars are badass. And, as with their songwriting, their approach to vocal recording has become more collaborative.

“We initially intended to record Louise first, and then Nina, and then do background vocals, but it became apparent early that neither one was happy with her own performance, or with each other’s performances. It was frustrating not to be able to capture whatever they thought they were missing,” Wood says.

“One day, they came in early and the two of them listened back to what they’d spent all day doing the previous day. They were holding their guitars and singing along with it, and I said, ‘Why don’t you sing it at the same time? This sounds great.’”

Wood then grabbed their vocal mics from the studio—an sE Electronics Z3300A for Post, and an sE T2 for Gordon—and quickly set them up in the control room. The pair sang together, without headphones, and suddenly—a choir of grunge angels; singing together in the control room became a Plan B that Wood could keep in his pocket for times when they couldn’t make things happen in the studio.

“I put them as close together as I could, and figured I’d have to worry about leakage later,” Wood says. “That’s the engineer’s problem. Performance-wise, this is what they required, and technology was going to have to take a very distant back seat. It worked brilliantly, but it meant a lot of fader riding in the mix.

“It was a nice reminder that isolation is overrated,” he continues. “Leakage is something that can actually enhance things. It can lead you to do things you wouldn’t have considered doing. You have to get creative. I couldn’t compress nearly as severely as I might casually do with a nicely isolated vocal.”

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“And then, after we did vocals and guitar overdubs, that’s when it gets fun,” Gordon says. “The fairy dust gets sprinkled, and finishing touches go onto each song.”

Brad Wood: working his studio magic. “There’s a certain kind of magic with the four of us,” Post agrees. “But after that foundation is laid, Nina and I can really play. And Brad gets to do his studio trickery, and turn the songs into gems.”

Wood offers an example of the kind of “fairy dust” that went on after all the main parts were nailed down:

“A lot of times Louise would have an idea for a guitar part that would actually end up sounding more to our ears like a synth or keyboard part,” he says. “After she and Nina had laid down most of their guitars, there might be some cool little counter- melody that happened midway through the second verse, or during the bridge—something that just stood out to us when we listened to the rough mixes. I always have a lot of soft synths available in Pro Tools, and I would bring up the track and usually start playing the melody with some sort of synth patch. Almost every time, Louise would then say, ‘That sounds cool. Now let me do it.’ [Laughs]

“Then, she would come up with a more elaborate and appropriate part, and we would further dial in the sound. That’s a really big difference from 1994 when I recorded them last, when all the synths were analog and you had to come up with the sound you wanted to live with, record it to tape, and that would be it. Now, you can do it in MIDI, and we would loop the section, tweak sounds, change them, and sometimes that would send us off on another tangent and the sound would conjure another idea that we’d pursue.”

“Brad came up with a lot of studio magic and he definitely has his imprint on this album,” Post says. “We couldn’t have made this album with anyone else. I would point to the last song on the album, ‘Alternica’ to drive that point home. That song was all heart. He was so moved by the song that he wanted to take it to the highest place possible.”

“’Alternica’ has the most beautiful arrangements,” Gordon affirms. “The orchestral parts at the end of the song are gorgeous. It surpassed what we ever could have imagined could happen, and we’re super grateful. It’s beautiful, and that was really his handiwork.”