A Motley Crew

Joel Hamilton and Company Call in the Troops for The Books of Knots’ Traineater
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“With this band, we try to do everything wrong,” proclaims guitarist/producer/engineer Joel Hamilton from the confines of his control room at Studio G Brooklyn. An established sonic wizard in his own right (his résumé includes everyone from Tom Waits and Elvis Costello to Sparklehorse and Unsane), Hamilton is speaking to the subject of practicing chaos theory in the studio with The Book of Knots—a collective that’s highly regarded in underground circles for its highly experimental and hard-edged style.

While based around Hamilton and core members Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu), Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat Trio, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), and Matthias Bossi (Skeleton Key, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum), the “band” is a seemingly endless revolving door of guest musicians—all of whom are subject to Hamilton’s admittedly reckless tracking techniques.

“I love sabotaging myself by limiting my choices to just one or two microphone makes for the majority of sources on an album,” he says. “I think it gives each project a fingerprint. And I’m not afraid of using mics that are less than ideal on a session, either. I’ll toss in some crappy mic that I don’t mind dropping. I’ll throw it behind the piano, or put it behind the floor tom. Mic placement is not premeditated. I won’t sit there listening and scratching my chin while the drummer is playing in the room. I will literally walk in and drop a mic on the floor, just to see what I get in the mix.”

Harvesting spontaneous sounds is the name of the game on TBOK’s newest album, Traineater [Anti-]. But, according to Hamilton—who produced the album entirely at Studio G through his newly acquired Neve desk (“Thirty-two Neve 33114s in a 5316 frame, eight buses, and two channels of 33314 compressors built right in”)—gear-geekery is also a vital component in achieving The Book of Knots sound.

“The more obscure the gear, the better,” says Hamilton. “I love using pieces that distort the incoming signal until it’s almost unrecognizable. Take the McMartin limiter, for instance. It’s this incredibly strange piece of equipment that was manufactured in the Midwest in the ’70s. I don’t know whether the person who made it actually liked audio, because it seems to destroy everything it touches!”

A good example of this unit in use is on the intro of “View from the Water Tower” where the music sounds “broken.”

“The speakers just shake with this insane amount of intermodulation distortion—like somebody hit a gigantic vibraslap in the room,” says Hamilton. “That’s the McMartin limiter coming up to speed on a parallel bus across the drums and bass. It sounds as if the whole recording system is just reeling from the impact of that downbeat. I wanted to give the impression that we were so huge that recording technology couldn’t even handle our giant gestures. I’ll also use the SPL Transient Designer just to have one mono fader that sucks up all the air around the drums. The image almost sounds reversed when you solo the drums, as the SPL totally reshapes the envelope. Couple that track with a reverb, and it gives the source sound the illusion of being more focused and punchy than it was when it was tracked. Another thing that works well is the Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture—which is basically an incredibly expensive distortion box. It can create everything from an old Ampex tape machine-esque sound with all that rich, harmonic lushness to an overdriven guitar amp that’s powering down. I typically use it across a drum bus, and it sounds just elegant.”

Essential to the end product is the previously mentioned slew of high-profile guest contributors. The roster on Traineater includes bassist-extraordinaire Mike Watt, Mr. Bungle/Secret Chiefs 3 wünderkind Trey Spruance, and Norman Westberg of SWANS fame. Perhaps the most noteworthy contribution on the album comes from Tom Waits, who adds his papal seal of approval in the form of a demented preacher vocal on “Pray.” Collaborating with Waits was a Waits-ian process—meaning no trips to a proper studio to track, no live link ups, and no gear created post 1970.

“Tom requested a 4-track cassette,” Hamilton reveals. “There is definitely no FTP business with Tom—not unless someone is making a wooden laptop now [laughs]. I made him a mono submix on track one, and he sang on track two. Then, he and Kathleen [Brennan, Waits’ wife and co-writer] sang the back-up vocals on track three, and he played guitar on track four.”

Hamilton decided to record first, and worry about context later when it came to the album’s guest musicians, which left the band with the Herculean task of editing down tons of source material.

“Sticking with my ‘do everything wrong’ work ethic, we wound up with 98 tracks for me to edit,” says Hamilton. “The Mute button became my best friend for the first 15 minutes of the mix, as I looked for emotional cues from which to assemble the story, or to frame a lyric or a riff we recorded. We don’t think very much before we hit Record. I like it that way.”

Not surprisingly, TBOK songs go through a series of evolutions before the band settles on a final structure.

“We’ll hack out entire parts of a song, or rework them,” Hamilton says. “I have mixes of the record where a couple of the songs are unrecognizable from what was ultimately released—apart from maybe the drums and vocals. As far as I’m concerned, a mix isn’t done until something reaches out and grabs me—until I forget I am the one who is playing on it. When a song makes me shut my eyes and not make any mix moves because it’s making me think about something greater than where the kick drum is sitting—when it speaks to me as a piece of art instead of a series of technical issues—that’s when a track is done. If you spend 17 hours tweaking some parameter in Pro Tools, then you have already lost perspective. Making an album is more about utilizing basic skills than having a Universal Audio 1176, or knowing where a Fairchild 660’s sweet spot is. It’s about having the right approach—not necessarily the right technique.”