An Evening With Joe Chiccarelli

Question: What do you get when you combine the brilliant songwriting of James Mercer, the fresh, riveting performances of The Shins, and the one and only Joe Chiccarelli?Answer: a timeless artistic achievement that gracefully rises above a sea of mediocrity. And sounds good. We mean really, really good.Chiccarelli, whose Grammy award-winning career includes production and engineering credits for artists like Elton John, American Music Club, The Stranglers, Beck, U2, White Stripes, and a host of others, helped Mercer and company (who up until this point had never collaborated so closely with a producer) explore a new palette of sonic possibilities, effectively taking The Shins’ music to an altogether different dimension. Though Chiccarelli describes Mercer as being somewhat reticent at the beginning of the project,

EQ: What, to you, is special about this particular project, and how did the collaboration come together?
Joe Chiccarelli: James [Mercer] is a pretty amazing talent. He has a real singular point of view in terms of songwriting and his sense of melody is unique, as is his sense of harmony. He kind of channels this weird ’60s/’70s classic rock thing, and working with someone with that sensibility was definitely fun.
He had originally started this record at home, but one thing that made this project easy was the fact that James was so open to input at this point in his life. We had been in touch for the last couple of years; he would call and I would help set up his home studio, or he would call with some questions about a song arrangement or would want some feedback on a song, that kind of thing. We remained in touch over a two year period, and I think he was finally ready to have someone come in from the outside and offer a different point of view.

EQ: What was your original reaction to the demos?
JC: The first time I heard the demos I thought that he clearly had the start of a fantastic album, though he was reluctant to share certain things with the band or me because they were in such early stages of development. You could tell from the beginning though . . . he has his own bent on things; he’s one of those artists that you really have to be aware of what makes him unique, and encourage that at all times.

EQ: Having recorded earlier albums at home, what do you think James was trying to achieve by working with you?
JC: James certainly was more than competent, as he recorded Oh Inverted World by himself on a PC in his living room. Initially, he was very reluctant to have anybody work with him, because he was worried that someone would alter what he wanted to do. This is one reason we remained acquaintances for a while — it was kind of baby steps, if you will, for a long time. But having spent maybe two years in the bedroom, I think he was ready and welcoming outside opinions.

EQ: What role would you say you played, ultimately, in the making of this album?
JC: I was able to bring some honest feedback on his songs and an expression of what I felt was needed to complete them. I also helped him explore possibilities in terms of song structures, arrangements, sounds, and overall approaches to recording. There are so many different ways to record the same thing — I just kind of opened the doors to that for him. I think he initially wanted to try a lot of new things, but was somewhat unsure. I don’t think he ever had a bad experience, but it’s almost as if he didn’t realize what a collaboration could bring [to the record].

EQ: There seemed to be a healthy dynamic between you and James. What was it like working with the rest of the band?
JC: They’re great guys and it was a true team effort — everyone was supportive of James and myself. Marty [Crandell, keyboards/bass/guitar] was there every bit of the project and Dave [Hernandez, bass] and Jesse [Sandoval, drummer] would come in from time to time.

EQ: This album has a very distinct feel to it. It’s sort of dreamy and weaves in and out the subconscious. Take the first track, ���Sleeping Lessons,” which has many different textures. It begins with this spacey blues riff that evolves into something much more immediate and in your face.
JC: That keyboard track was something James started at home, but it never really developed — it was just kind of a mood piece with a little drum loop on it. It sounded great without any build whatsoever. It worked well as a moody little piece, and James was pretty sure he wanted it to be the start of the record. So the question became “How do you keep this mood, but keep the listener’s interest and also have it be the introduction to the rest of the album, to let you know where the record is going?” We ended up really working on the structure and the dynamics.

EQ: Did you use any particular method while tracking in terms of how you built the tracks up?
JC: As James started this at home, and also because he went up to Seattle to do some basic tracks with Phil Eck, in some cases it was just a matter of building upon that.

EQ: How many useable tracks did James bring in?
JC: Not all of them, but some. I think most of the stuff was stripped down to very basic things. In the end, it was about three months of work on my part. In some cases drum tracks were kept, in some cases keyboards and little guitar pieces. There were one or two vocals that were kept. A lot of the stuff was tweaked, repaired, processed. In most cases, we kept parts of the original home tracks and built upon them.

EQ: Let’s take a track like “Australia,” for example: Were you using any techniques in particular that helped make James’ vocals shine?
JC: James and I just went in for two or three days at the beginning of the project. I wanted to bring the tracks that he had done at home as well as Seattle into a real studio and just give them a listen to see what was on tape, then evaluate what was and wasn’t usable. The “Australia” vocal, which we did with a BLUE Bottle, was one of the tracks that we did on those days. One of the things we settled on was, on those rock songs where his vocal was doubled on the demo, we found that it was actually better to re-record and triple it. . . .

EQ: That doesn’t sound obvious at all, at least to me.
JC: I find that with certain singers, sometimes you double them and it just takes the soul out of them. The choruses seemed like they needed the doubled effect, but it just didn’t sound right with his voice. So in cases where his voice is kind of double-tracked sounding, it is actually tripled-tracked. Often I’ll mix and match things with the double and triple takes where I’ll either track them with different microphones, set the vocalist at different distances from the mic, use more or less compression on each, go for a different tone on each so it adds up in a nice way.

EQ: When you’re dealing with a triple, do you prefer to have one vocal track that is mixed front and center?
JC: Yeah, the other vocals tend to be down a little bit, shades that just reinforce the main vocal.

EQ: On “Pam Berry” you have an acoustic guitar sound matched with a twangy electric that’s picking parts over the top. What was responsible for the tones of each section?
JC: We had a Gibson Hummingbird for the acoustic sections and an old Epiphone Zephyr for the electric parts — which ran through a [Vox] AC30 for one track and a Fender Super Reverb for the other, mixed with a direct signal.

EQ: How were the amps miked?
JC: When James did things at his home studio, he was using a [AKG] 414 and a [Shure] SM57. I told him, “You gotta get some more mics.” So he bought a Royer 121 to use on his guitar amps. He was sort of happy with the 414s for his vocals, but he got an Audio-Technica 4050 to use on his acoustics paired with a Mojave MA200. These were run into a Daking Mic-Pre IV and a Universal Audio 610.
I tend to use a lot of weird and cheap microphones and effects, like weird old Western Electrics, Pultecs, junk mics from the ’50s that have nothing but midrange. Sometimes these mics have the most character for things — if it looks like it’s broken and from the junk pile of microphones, it gets used [laughs]!

EQ: The beginning of “Phantom Limb” is a bass, not a synth, right?
JC: Yes. Most of the bass Marty did with a [Fender] P-bass through a really nice ’60s [Ampeg] B15, in some cases with a bit of reverb. On “Phantom Limb,” we re-amped his bass through a few different fuzz boxes. The signal hit a Neve module that was overdriven, and then it was re-amped with a chain of a couple of different stomp boxes, such as Z.Vex’s Wooly Mammoth and Fuzz Factory.

EQ: How long did it take you to get a handle on the room at Supernatural Studios?
JC: I had worked at Supernatural before, so I kind of knew what was in store for me — they have Tannoy AMS 10As, which I use a lot, and the Yamaha NS10s, which everybody uses. Mixing was a bit of a challenge; everything was done at Supernatural, with the exception of a few things tracked at San Francisco’s Soundworks and, earlier on, Avast! in Seattle. Some of that remains on the record: for instance, the basics of “Girl Sailor.”

EQ: My favorite track on the record has to be “Red Rabbits.” There is a break that occurs with a violin solo and a beautiful slide guitar that reminds me of “Sleep Walk” by Santo and Johnny from the ’50s. Anyhow, is that a real violin just before the guitar solo?
JC: Yes. Paloma Griffin from Pink Martini played on that cut. Chris Funk from the Decemberists came in and played mandolin, fiddle and a bunch of other odds and ends on other songs. He may be on that track as well.

EQ: “Red Rabbits” sounds like it’s underwater. What are all the bubble-popping sounds?
JC: In the beginning, part of it is just a Nord Lead 3 patch. I also used a lot of spring reverb from the Roland Space Echo. There are a lot of heavily compressed “breathing” reverb effects on the tracks. We also used a [Hammond] B-3 and a Farfisa on a number of songs.

EQ: You’ve worked on so many projects, and have obviously learned so much over the course of your career. What was most challenging for you on this project?
JC: The most challenging part of making any record is establishing good communication and chemistry with the artist — which I had with James. I think that the most important thing in making a record is that you really have to get inside the artist’s head and understand what they are trying to do. Hopefully you have an artist that is really clear about what they are trying to do; that makes the whole process easier. The more you can bond with an artist and really be on the same page, the better the record comes out.