In the June issue of Electronic Musician, Ken Micallef goes inside the studio with Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl, aka The GOASTT, to learn how they recorded their new album, Midnight Sun. Here, we share interview outtakes, in which Lennon and Muhl expand on their psychedelic production techniques.
Electronic Musician: What was the original songwriting intention for the album?
Sean Lennon: Initially when we started the band Charlotte and I wanted to do something more folk psychedelic, a Syd Barrett thing. That's the music we were really listening to. After a while we started writing and recording the songs at my studio in upstate New York. The more we got into electrifying the songs the more we felt they deserved more of an elaborate psychedelic landscape. They seem to fit the music, especially as our music is very surreal and out there and the chords are really unpredictable. We feel like production reflects the songs. Having my own studio allows us to experiment a lot with different signal paths and effects cause we're not on the clock. We can just hang out. So we did a lot of crazy things.
EM: What is your general recording or working process?
SL: Usually I am playing everything, and Charlotte plays keyboard and bass too. For the most part I am the workhorse. I go through drums and bass and guitar and lay down the basic tracks. We record a scratch vocal with an acoustic guitar just to lay it down as a map. Then we will under-dub instruments. We always need a map. I call it under-dubbing. Anything that is a basic track, like drums and bass, but if it gets recorded later, I call it an under-dub.
EM: What was your process for tracking vocals?
SL: Charlotte sounds good on an AKG 414, but I sound too nasally on that mic. The 57 works for my voice, and takes away some of the brightness I don't like in my voice. When I finally figured out that I didn't want to sing through a U47 anymore, and a 57 instead, the engineer I was working with looked up the microphone my dad used. There was a whole story about how he went into Abbey Road and didn't like the way his voice sounded specifically on a U47 and he wound up using a dynamic mic on a lot of his vocals. I wish I had read that when I was younger; it took me until I was 35 to realize that. It was exactly the same experience but for me it took a lot longer. But if I find a vintage dynamic mic or ribbon from the 60s or 70s for under $150 I buy it. Again it has to do with things that aren’t clichés. Recently we’ve been recording drums on an old Panasonic boom box. That’s a trick that the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth did that I got to see back in the days. Sonic Youth would record the whole band on a Sony Walkman and blend that into the main track.
EM: The drums have so many different sounds: plastic, echoey, layered drum sounds.
SL: There is no single way we recorded. On “Midnight Sun” we recorded the basic track live to our eight-track Ampex 440. We didn't change the drum sounds too much cause it was a fat drum sound going straight to tape. Other drum sounds we had recorded a long time ago, before the studio was completed, like on “Last Call.” I rerecorded the drums for that song four times. Charlotte and I recorded the original track in my living room in New York. That sound was so bad we kept replacing it, and wound up in mixing giving the different takes to Dave Fridmann who has these incredible techniques for saving bad drum sounds. Dave can push the signal to different compressors in specific ways. Instead of using the compressor as an insert he sends a submix of the drums to the compressor so when you push up the fader you are changing the input level to the compressor. That lets you play with the distortion of the compressor basically. And you can also have that same drum sound as an insert on another compressor for a more normal sound. Then you can blend those together on another submix to have a submix of three or four different compressors, some of them being pushed, some on insert and they can blend into one subgroup of drums. Dave Fridmann is the only person who can take a shitty flat drum sound and within a few minutes of messing with it, it sounds like John Bonham on “When The Levee Breaks.” He’s a wizard of compression.
EM: You mentioned earlier you almost used an oil can reverb?
SL: Yes, it uses a kind of oil and instead of a magnetic plate or a spring, I guess the oil is magnetic with metal powder or something. The voltage goes through the oil and it actually sounds oily. But there was something about the oil that was very toxic. The use of it has been outlawed in home electronics. A friend has one and it's one of the darkest sounding reverbs I have ever heard, and it did sound oily though that sounds crazy. Reverbs do sound like their materials: a plate sounds very sizzly, like a drum cymbal, and a spring does sound like a spring, like a staircase. Then an echo chamber does sound like a church. The oil reverb does sound oily.
EM: You’re big on reverbs.
SL: Finding new reverbs is a mission. I am thinking of building my own reverb chambers because all the reverbs you hear are basically cliches whether it's a Lexicon or a Waves plug-in. They all sound so familiar. As soon as you hear a sound that's a cliche it's almost like your brain shuts it off. You feel like you know what you are hearing already. As soon as you hear something that sounds completely derivative you stop listening. So we are always trying to find slightly new ways of freshening our own ears. We're lucky to have an EMT 140 plate reverb. We don't have a spring, but we do have a bunch of cheaper amp spring reverbs. They're very dirty so we don't use those very much.
EM: And you want to build your own echo chambers?
SL: Yes, I would build a room and tile it like a bathroom--but with no bathroom. You only need a speaker and a microphone recording the room sound. Then we can have textures and reverbs that aren't familiar or available to everyone. That's one of the reasons the records from the 60s sounded different because each reverb chamber was unique to those studios. The Motown studios or Ocean Way or Abbey Road, they all had their own reverb chambers and they were all slightly different. Everyone talks about the live room, and the board is important, and the mics, but everything goes through the reverb in the end.
EM: How did you two meet?
Charlotte Kemp Muhl: It was at Coachella year ago when I was 17. We weren't performing. I didn't know he existed. Didn't know who he was. We bonded over music and science and nerded out. We stayed in touch and he sent me postcards every day. It was an old fashioned courtship. We both loved words and wordplay. Then we began to write songs together and we released a 35mm film that we made upstate, kind of a post apocalyptic scenario where he plays an ex Wall Street character. It's a nuclear winter and everyone is a cannibal, it's like Easter Island. We've always been obsessed with post apocalyptic themes. That was the theme of our acoustic record as well.
EM: Where do you work?
CKM: Our studio in the countryside, the middle of nowhere in a barn that looks dilapidated on the outside but on the inside it's a musician's wet dream. We have everything except a board but we're getting a board this year. We have an amazing collection of instruments we've been building. Weird old shit.
EM: So many strange sounds on the record. What are the bizarre guitar sounds on “Midnight Sun”? It’s like a thunderstorm or engine trying to start.
CKM: That's a Mellotron solo running through guitar pedals. We do a lot of trickery in Pro Tools, but we also re-amp a lot to have a different set of effects. Then we blend both of them. Every time you reamp you get more weirdness, more harmonics in the room. Every time you re-amp you have the choice to put it through another set of effects. There’s a lot of possibilities."
EM: What was key to the psychedelic production?
CKM: We both love Pink Floyd and The Beatles. Our shared love for it recently expanded exponentially. We became that aesthetic. We kept pushing each other to see how far we could go. We'd be out in the forest for weeks on end. We'd make weirder and weirder sounds and writing weirder and weirder chord changes. Sean was more on the instrument side, and I was more on the editing ide. I am such a control freak about editing in Pro Tools. I did all the editing on the record. We did a lot of experimenting, Sean did most of the playing and I did the editing. Many tracks started with me on guitar and Sean on drums. Often he’d play all the drum and the instruments, then I would edit. A traditional male-female relationship: He’d do all the fucking, then I would give birth. Then we'd layer things from there. That is how it became more and more psychedelic. We kept trying things until it became this weird psychedelic onion.
EM: You’ve really captured that epic mid tempo feeling of 60s-era crazy slide guitars and weird harmonies and delays.
CKM: We used an old cassette boom box, which makes a great effects track for drums. We will record drums on to the cassette tape and it will be distorted because we record the drums really hot. Then we use that as an effects track for a really cool dirty sound. My favorite trick for drums is putting them through the ARP 2600, then do a manual filter sweep as we are recording the drums through the ARP. If you do the manual filter sweep and fuck with the ring modulator it does amazing stuff to the drums. That's our favorite go-to. If anything from vocals to drums sounds boring we run it through the ARP.
EM: How did you edit all the drums from different sessions?
CKM: The trick for finding some consistency in the sound is reamping, reamping, reamping. We discovered this amazing trick where you could send the drum track through a speaker pointed at an actual snare drum and it will excite the snare drum. It's like magic. It will trigger the snare when the snare hit would come through the microphone. We recorded the sound of the snare being triggered and that would double the actual snare in the drum tracks. You play the drum track through a speaker into the snare drum, and the snare triggers itself. It's like a ghost is hitting it. We'd also reamp the shit out of guitars and drums to make them sound cohesive, maybe re-amp them together coming out of one amp. We embraced the Frankenstein quality of it.
EM: What were some of the other instruments used?
CKM: In terms of instruments we have a Baldwin electric harpsichord, a calliope from the 1800s, a B3 Hammond, marimba, vibraphone, Rhodes. But we've been cheap about microphones. Weird old cheap mics, like the bullet mic, or the super compressed ones, we have an old tiny one we used on the snare. A lot of them are novelty mics. Lo-fi at the time. But they a have a cool sound. I'd rather have an old novelty mic that a real expensive mic that sounds boring. Something distorted, or a weird EQ or a lot of compression, that's what we're interested in not a clean warm boring sound.