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Conversing with Giants: The Extended Interview - EMusician

Conversing with Giants: The Extended Interview

In “Conversing with Giants,” EM interviews They Might Be Giants in the midst of their 25th-anniversary concert tour.
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JL: Right, I''m not sure what that would be.JF: I don''t know. I don''t know what awesome is.You''ve worked with Pat Dillett for so long. Is he like the unofficial third permanent member of the band?
JF: Yeah, he''s like the third Beatle. He was an assistant engineer at Skyline when we were making Flood, and he worked with Nile Rodgers. Skyline was in many ways one of the studios in that last era of great New York studios that had a formal—I don''t even know what you''d call it. Engineers came through there who were really taught how to work this certain way. It had more to do with the way people made records in the ''50s and ''60s than with the way a lot of things are made now. [Pat] comes at it with a lot of skills that you''re not going to learn on your own.And you''re dependent on him.
JF: We''re very dependent on him. The sonic things that really speak on the record are often coming from his side of things. And so, when we went to working with the Dust Brothers, one of the things we wanted to do, since they were only working on half the record, was to avoid a sort of schizophrenic project. Pat and the band are consistent throughout the whole project, so it''s like it doesn''t have that kind of, you know. There are a lot of records that have multiple producers on it these days, and they tend to be very unsatisfying as overall projects. There might be a shining one effort that really stands out, one song that''s really awesome. But a lot of times, just as a music listener, a lot of times I feel like those are the most schizy records.That''s something that impressed me about The Else. Even though different people produced different songs, it all sounds very cohesive.
JF: Yeah, well, it was all mixed by Pat. That was by design. From the experience we had with Mink Car, which was kind of a similar mixed bag, we just wanted to make sure that this had more sonic continuity. It just helps the overall experience.You''ve worked with major labels—Elektra being the biggest—and you''ve worked independently. How do those experiences compare?
JL: Sometimes I think it''s less and less relevant whether we''re on a major or whatever. We''ve very much established the way that we like to work, and that is the principle thing, that we''re kind of figuring out the scheduling and who''s producing, what hours we''re going to work, the atmosphere in the studio, things like that. That to me is the key ingredient: how we actually work day-to-day, not so much what organization is producing the record. And in some ways, we established with Elektra pretty early on that we wanted a lot of freedom.I would expect that you''d demand creative control no matter who you work with.
JL: Yeah, we entered sort of asking that we be allowed to… We agreed to work with producers with Flood, which was the first record on Elektra, but we established that we actually knew what we were doing. It was a nice thing, actually, working with [producers] Clive [Langer] and Alan [Winstanley]. They had a sense of, like, these guys have already produced their records, and they sort of know how it goes. So it was very collaborative. Since then, we''ve very much been behind the wheel ourselves.How much of your songwriting time do you spend together? I know you bounce ideas off each other.
JL: Not very much. Now John mostly works up in the Catskills when he''s writing and I''m in Brooklyn; that''s where my studio is. We write pretty independently, and we''ve had a number of tracks in the recent past where we''ve collaborated. There''s one shining exception, which is the song “Mink Car” off of [the album] Mink Car we actually wrote sitting at a piano in this Leopold and Loeb sort of way. We don''t really ever do that. JF: More likely these days, it''ll be handing off a file. There''s a bunch of that. Sometimes it''s just small things, like specialty items that need to be addressed, but it''s definitely…JL: Here''s a sort of happy way that we collaborated on the last record. One example is I sent my demo of the first track, “I''m Impressed,” to John.How?
JF: MP3. Really lo-fi MP3.JL: I emailed it to him.So you don''t have dedicated fiber-optic lines or anything like that?
JL: We do not, although we have a segment in our show now where we receive phone calls from dead people. As we tell the audience, we have a necro-fiber-optic line to the graveyard, which nobody else has.JF: Very expensive.JL: Pretty much the whole budget of the tour is in that. Anyway, at some point I gave John the OMF, which just has the vocal and the drum reference and the chords. He took that and constructed a whole new track just behind the vocal. So he basically created a completely new track based on what I''d given him.With guitar?
JF: Yeah, with everything on it.How does he get that to you? Then you''re getting into serious audio tracks.
JF: Oh, I made the audio tracks upstate. All the bass and the drums and everything.JL: Well, then we [brought] the OMF to Pat Dillett.JF: Although what''s funny is the vocal that''s on the track is from the MP3.JL: Oh, that''s right, the vocal on the record is an MP3 recording.JF: If you wonder how we capture that really crummy sound, it is that familiar sound of kind of a low-res MP3.That''s good news to anybody who downloads your music, because they''re not going to lose anything.
JF: [laughs] Well, you know, it was a decision. We listened to [the vocal tracks], and part of it just had some slightly distressed effect on it.JL: Sort of a murky sound to it, yeah.JF: And combined with the original source and the effect, it did seem more interesting than just a straight vocal.I didn''t know anyone was doing that. Perhaps a lot of them are; we just don''t know about it.
JF: Yeah, yeah, I mean, it''s just not the kind of thing you brag about.JL: You know what I think it was? I think the MP3 had the effects I had put on it in my home studio, and the OMF, of course, doesn''t deliver the effects. The OMF we brought to Pat of the original full-bandwidth vocal didn''t have the effects that I''d put on the demo. And we''re like, well, how do we get these effects? And Pat was like, “Well, why don''t you just use this track, this perfectly good MP3 track?”How long have you been doing it that way?
JF: Oh, well, we don''t do too many things that way. That was like our remix project.JL: That was a one-off.Which song?
Both: “I''m Impressed.”Okay, I can hear that. It has a kind of narrow-bandwidth thing happening.
JF: Yeah, the whole song is kind of filtered.Do you do your most productive songwriting at home?
JL: I pretty much do all my songwriting at home, with the exception of this one project we did a couple years ago where we wrote all the songs pretty much on this bus right before we sound checked, which is the Venue Songs project. Other than that, I think we pretty much both write at home all the time. That''s more or less the one way.Do you track and mix in the same studio?
JF: No, we tracked in a bunch of different places, mostly to get bigger drum sounds. We tracked at Avatar, which is the old Power Station, and did a bunch of drums there. We tracked at the Boat, which was the Dust Brothers'' studio in L.A., which is a really nice facility. And at Campo—Campo is a studio complex where there''s like three different studios in it, including a big recording room. But that''s not where we mix. I think we''re kind of happy to not have the ability to recut, to actually have to decide. To know something is done is kind of a relief, in terms of the process. When we do the tracking process, we are very purposefully thinking, “We''ve got everything we need here, and now we can move on to the next stage.” There is an open invitation to revise—it''s so easy with digital recording—that it''s almost like you''re doing yourself a favor to have a process that says that chapter is over.Different parts of the workflow—it''s time to move on to the next one.
JL: I think it helps to have a sense that you know what you''re doing rather than that you have a wistful hope it will all get sorted out at the end. You actually have to put together the whole project in your head. It''s how they make movies; you have to shoot everything, and know that you''ve got everything you need, rather than go, “Maybe we''ll fix this later on.”That''s a very good analogy.
JF: But in spite of the fact that we work electronically in the early stages of what we do, we do a lot of recording in very traditional ways. We''ll set up the full band to record and track with everybody playing at the same time.That is very traditional.
JF: And nobody does that anymore. But, you know, I''ve got to tell you. The reason we started doing it was very practical. We didn''t do it until we started doing the incidental music for Malcolm in the Middle, and then the deadlines were so fast, we were basically totally in over our heads. We had way more work to do than we knew how to finish, and so it was just kind of an all-hands-on-deck moment professionally. And then, as we were working in this kind of panic-stricken way, the efficiencies of working that way just kind of appeared to us. Up until that point, I think we felt like tracking the drums by themselves and then doing the bass and the guitars.JL: Well, originally, first we''d track the kick, when we were a duo. All right, we''ll just do the kick. All right, now we''ll add the snare. And you actually don''t really know what you''re doing when you work that way. It''s very hard to tell. And the great thing about our situation now is that we also have these very competent musicians who are deeply concerned about how integrated their parts are with one another. So they''ll go in and play stuff and really listen for the harmonious playing-together aspect of their performance. They''ll go back and do it again if they feel like the bass and the kick aren''t agreeing, if the part''s not working or if the performance isn''t working, and all these issues can be [decided] simultaneously to the recording being made. I think that''s a really valuable thing about the band.How early in the songwriting process do you bring the band in? Do you get ideas from them while you''re writing a song?
JF: It really varies from song to song. If you have a song that''s got a more organic feel, you can leave it in a more skeletal way and then just present it to the band and kind of work it up together. And what the band will bring to it will really amplify all those qualities. If you''re working on something that''s a little bit more…Like, “Man, It''s So Loud in Here.”
JF: Well, that we did a, quote, rock version of that song that we recorded with the band that just didn''t seem as purposeful as the final thing that we did. It really depends on the song.JL: I''ll tell you we always start with something before the band hears the song, we start with some kind of arrangement concept, and then that can be completely thrown out the window when the band gets there. But John and I always demo everything before the band hears it.Do you still do any tracking with the drum machine?
JF: Yeah. “I''m Impressed” is all drum machine.JL: We also have done a lot of stuff more recently, particularly with the Dust Brothers, where we take the drum loops and use that as the basis for the track. And then, in most every case on this record, we''ve had Marty [Beller, the drummer] come in and replace the loop with his own version of the loop—in other words, play along and then loop what he''s doing—and that becomes the more deliberate [part]. Often these loops are just pulled from whatever''s available. John and I don''t have vast drum-loop libraries to work from.Do you work with BFD or DrumCore or anything like that?
JL: We actually have worked with DrumCore; that''s something that both of us have used a bunch. But again, that''s more of a reference material. Marty will eventually be the arbiter of good taste in those situations. JF: I was talking to a commercial producer—we were working on these TV commercials last year—and he''s also a musician. He was asking me if we ever used the Apple Loops stuff. And I don''t know if I said this to him directly, but I felt like we''re being hired to bring our own sound to something, and I can''t imagine how disappointing it would be if you were familiar with Apple Loops all of a sudden. I''ve never really opened that door. I know that everyone thinks they sound really good.JL: I have to tell you that we have used Apple Loops, but again, just as a starting point. I think John King was an early advocate of Apple Loops, and [they were] something that was available. They sound good, but again, we get our drummer to come in and do it.Conversely, if somebody recognizes it, it might make their ears perk up. “I know that sound, I can identify with that sound.”
JF: Every time I hear the R8 plate sound on some Law & Order episode, I always think, “Man, they''re still using that.”Do you use a sampler for much these days?
JL: We both have been using [MOTU] MachFive, the software sampler.So you''re in tight with MOTU, it sounds like.
JL: Well, we did get some stuff from them. We were on the back of EM, actually, I don''t know if you remember that. So we got some gear out of that, mostly software.JF: We still get to buy it.JL: We still buy stuff. I think that has pretty much ended, that stream of stuff, and we''ve had to buy MOTU stuff recently.I noticed you have a new Roland Fantom X8. I didn''t see that on your last tour.
JL: Yeah, that''s new. If it weren''t for the unfortunate fact that I found out installing third-party chips in the [E-mu] Proteus 2000 does something completely weird to them that more or less makes them unreliable onstage after a couple of years. I never figured out why, but I had a bunch of Proteus 2000s, and I burned sample chips and started using those. A few years into that, it completely ruined the reliability of them as live instruments. As soon as they started to warm up, the pitch would get crazy. So in frustration, I finally just completely changed my setup, and now I''m in the Roland world.[Previously,] I used the [Roland] A-30 as the controller, and the sound sources were the Proteus 2000s with a lot of third-party stuff, including especially my own samples. You could burn your chip using flash ROM thing that you could burn in a E-mu sampler. So now you can just put them onto a USB drive and plug it into your synthesizer?
JL: Yeah, now it''s way easier. The Roland incorporates everything else I used to do. I used to have the (Boss) Dr. Sample sitting on top, and now it''s actually incorporated into the keyboard, so there''s the familiar 16 glowing buttons; they''re all part of the keyboard now. So the whole thing has gotten a lot more streamlined.What was it that made you choose the Roland over the Korg or the Yamaha?
JL: I tried a bunch of things, and that one had the 16 pads, which weren''t included on most of the other ones. I tried the Triton. It seems like the simplest architecture; it''s not simple, but I guess I''m just used to the Roland thing from the Dr. Sample. It''s a really weird way that you have to load samples into the Roland, but I''m used to it now. So it''s just like what you know. It''s like DP; DP is by no means the best.JF: Easy there, brother.JL: But I must say, we''ve been using it for almost 20 years. The guys in our band are all swearing by Logic, and John and I have not made the leap yet.JF: Personally, I really love all the kookie little plug-ins that come with the new version of DP. That Model 12 thing is super-phenomenal and totally came into play on a lot of things on The Else, because you can filter individual sounds and then have it become a kit is a really beautiful…JL: There''s still a lot of distinct, really useful things that nobody else seems to do that DP has, like Spectral Effects.So you use those a lot?
JL: That''s a big part of our lives.JF: We use Spectral Effects all the time, yeah. Part of it is that we grew up with tape, so it''s like having the pitch wheel was something that we reach for all [the time]. It''s a very simple idea, but there''s really like a half-dozen different things that a pitch wheel [can do].JL: In other words, formant shifting. It''s something that [MOTU] figured it out. They came up with a really good way of doing it.And they were probably the first.
JF: We tried other plug-in versions that do similar things, and none of them have as much character, and none of them track as well.JL: The other thing that''s cool in DP: pitch correction. Nobody else does it that way. It''s very interesting; it''s a really useful way of doing pitch correction.Have you explored Celemony Melodyne?
JL: No, not at all.It''s all about formant shifting and pitch correction. You can take whole polyphonic blocks and shift them around to transpose the pitch, and it sounds pretty good.
Are you a stompbox kind of guy?
JF: I have stompboxes. I''m a stompbox addict.Are you constantly looking for stompboxes with new sounds?
JF: I am; I''m constantly looking for extreme sounds, and that''s very frustrating because most of the orientation of [stompbox manufacturers] is towards very orthodox sounds.Have you discovered Metasonix?
JF: I don''t know about Metasonix.Oh, they have effects with names like the Butt Probe and the Scrotum Smasher, and they''re all about bizarre sounds.
JL: That sounds horrible!JF: I actually appreciate the purple Line 6 box, which is probably the least popular of the bunch, because it''s all sorts of synth-based effects. For live, I can do things that really step away from standard guitar sounds. If you see the show tonight, there''s this whole introduction to the song, “Older.” It''s just like the most extreme octave guitar thing. I''m using a [Electro-Harmonix] POG a lot right now. I guess the things that introduce some form of synthesis to the guitar always kind of catch my ear a little bit more. I''ve wasted extraordinary amounts of money on fuzz boxes; they all just sound distorted.What''s the most recent stompbox you''ve added to your live setup?
JF: I just got this thing called the [Emma] Discombobulator, which is actually like a Mu-Tron envelope follower box. It''s made in Denmark, and it''s probably not that different from a Moogerfooger-type thing, but it has a very wide level of control. And it sounds kind of crazy.Do you have any of the Moog pedals?
JF: I don''t. I was very curious about them.The latest one, the FreqBox, makes your guitar not sound like a guitar. You might be interested in that.
JF: I bought a Moogerfooger very early on, and it seemed like the thresholds to the guitar''s output were very imprecise. Part of the problem is that a guitar''s output is such a strange medieval charge that a lot of things that aren''t designed just for guitar have a really difficult time tracking them. I basically approach processing guitar in the studio completely different than live, because live is a very cruel situation.I love the electronic intro to “Careful What You Pack.” What was that?
JF: Oh, the sort of ping-ponging keyboard sound is just a delay on a synth.What synth?
JL: It''s the [MOTU] MX4, but there''s some backwards drums in there, as well, as part of the sound. It''s like a loop of a lot of different drums. Some of it is backwards.Did anyone in particular inspire the lyrics to that song?
JF: That song was written for the movie Coraline for the opening sequence and was cut out of the movie. So the lyrics were just sort of adjusted a little bit to be less specific to the character, because it was about a little girl. It was just one of those things where we thought it was a really quality song and had an interesting mood to it. We contributed a lot of songs to this movie, and the whole movie just changed direction midway through. We were brought in very early, so our stuff has had every chance to be shot down.It sounds like a Wendy Carlos/The Shining sort of experience.
JL: Oh, I don''t know about that.She recorded the entire score, and Kubrick only used two tracks. Not until after Stanley Kubrick died was the stuff released in 2005.
JL: Well, for us it was probably similar. Obviously, when something happens over and over again, you start to wonder how much is on your own end. But similar to the Dust Brothers experience, we thought we were ready at the starting gate to produce everything. We cooked up a lot of songs, and then we realized that this project was moving at about a tenth the speed that we''re used to going. We probably would have been wise to slow down our own engine.JF: It would have been a cool opener for the movie is all I can say.JL: I agree with that.I have another gear question. Have you ever tried the Roland V-Accordion?
JL: No, I guess I''ve been very shy about electronic accordion. I''ve seen a lot of things. We''ve used the accordion in few different ways other than just straight recording in the past, but to me the idea of using the instrument as the controller for something else, it doesn''t feel… I guess maybe I''m not enough of a technical accordion player to think that that would be an improvement over just sitting down and playing a keyboard.So you didn''t take accordion lessons when you were a kid?
JL: No, no, I picked up accordion late. I started playing keyboards in rock bands before I ever touched an accordion. I still have an utterly unorthodox left hand. My wife plays the accordion; she really wants to learn the right way to do it, and I don''t have very much to offer her.You''re so associated with that instrument.
JL: Well, I am an accordionist.And not that many accordionists are as well known as you.
JL: Fortunately, the way I play is that I''m very self-taught. I use the left hand pretty much just for bass notes. I don''t really play the chords. That''s my orientation.Do you ever write songs on the accordion?
JL: I have, yeah.Songs that end up with the accordion being he prominent instrument?
JL: Oddly, no. But it points you in a certain direction. It''s just a different thing to write with.JF: Just ‘cause it has the whole circle-of-fifths thing going?JL: Well, if you''re using the chords in the left hand, it''s a very folk instrument, because the columns of chords are arranged in fifths all the way up and down. It''s like an autoharp; it leads you to play a certain chord [progression].You''re less likely to come up with something that''s totally out of left field in terms of chord progression.
JL: You might, but it''s just a different thing.JF: It would suddenly seem rigorous in its harmonic structure if it was out of left field, because you''d be doing something that''s…JL: I think it just throws me off my usual keyboard game. That''s what it''s good for.In the studio, who''s in charge of instrumentation and arranging?
JF: I think we both kind of lead the songs that we write. But in a weird way, our skill sets overlap tremendously. Our collaboration, aesthetically, is extremely active and very real. We both challenge each other is ways that are incredibly profound and hard to even quantify.JL: We''re still scared of each other.After 25 years, that''s amazing.
JF: I think that part of it is we''re ambitious for this project in a very active way. I was talking to somebody the other day about the fact that this is our 25th year working as a band, and there''s virtually nothing publicly out there celebrating the fact that this is our 25th year in music. That''s often the only topic, when people get to their 25th year. It''s like, “Wow, you''re still doing something.”JL: Fortunately for us, we feel like there''s other stuff to talk about.I wish we could do that in this article, but by the time it comes out, it will be 2008. What comes after silver anniversary?
JL: I think the point of bringing it up is that we feel we have lots of other stuff going on besides the fact that we''re celebrating our anniversary. We''re an active enough project that that isn''t really the main point. JF: But what I was going to say is that when we go into the studio and if there''s a chart arranging, it falls to John [Linnell]. If there''s horns coming in or strings coming in, especially when we''re doing outside work, work for hire stuff for TV or movies or whatever, a lot of times, I''m kind of the de facto producer. I''m not sure why, but part of it is that I''m a very avid pop-music listener, and I tend to listen as much for texture as for harmonics. I think we both have the x-y axis of our skill sets—I think we''ve learned where our strengths lie.JL: Yeah, that''s right.JF: And it''s not like we don''t defer to the other one in a million different ways all the time, and it''s not like it isn''t a collaboration. We recognize that the other one can bring something really powerful to the thing.What can you tell me about your new Disney album, Here Come the 123s?
JL: Well, it''s done.It''s done? Well, how was the experience?
JF: We made it at the same time as we made The Else. We were working on these two projects. In some ways, the fact that we were making a children''s record while we were making an adult rock record probably made The Else acerbic [and] masculine-like.JL: Yeah, ‘cause I was saying to John while we were making it, “Boy, this is like the least cuddly record that we''ve ever made.” And it''s probably because we were siphoning off the…JF: Right, if something suddenly seemed adorable, we would put it on the children''s record right away. But there''s a track on the album that we did with the Dust Brothers, which is a very cool piece of music called “Seven.” It really has their stamp on it, too. I think if you ask anybody who''s written kids'' stuff, it''s so much fun for the writer. It''s such a blank check. You really have license to do almost anything you''ve ever wanted to do.JL: This is one thing that I feel like we''re very off the hook with (off the hook in the old-fashioned sense), which is that the Disney stuff is not going to be judged in the context of rock music. People aren''t going to listen to it and go, “Well, it pales before Exile on Main Street.” It''s actually going to be judged by young people who don''t have any context, for the most part, very little context or a very strange context.There''s your future audience.
JF: Hopefully.JL: So a lot of the stuff we''re doing, they''re hearing an entire genre for the first time in this one particular song. This will be the very first ska-like music that this child will ever hear, so it doesn''t really have to compete or mean something specific in the context of that. And so as a result, we''re probably doing stuff that''s less pastiche-y. Well, we could just make up a whole kind of music for this kid, because they don''t really care that it doesn''t sound authentic. In other words, there''s the huge freedom that you have writing for kids, because you''re just trying to make it interesting or entertaining or fun or wake them up in some way. Those are the primary concerns for the adult stuff, but often we feel like we are kind of in the spotlight in a way when we''re doing adult material.JF: I think something that''s been confusing for us ever since we''ve gone public with our work is just what the critique is. Where we land in the culture is basically just a source of confusion for us. We don''t feel like we''re part of the pop world, but that''s the only place that our work makes sense.You''ve sold enough records to prove you belong there.
JF: And also, any honest assessment of what we do, we''re not experimental musicians, we recognize that. But on some level, we like to think of ourselves as kind of floating somewhere outside the Earth''s gravitational pull and free. If we have a pop-culture reference, it''s not necessarily even that meaningful. It just ended up in there; it just got woven into whatever we were doing. Part of the thing that actively freaks me out is how often people think that we''re just social commentators, that what we''re doing is somehow a reflection of some other large part of the rock scene. We''re involved in the rock scene, and we love a lot of things that are going on in the rock scene, but it''s not that important to us on some ultimate level. When we''re writing songs, we''re trying to write songs that will be worthy of repeated listening, just like any other songwriter.JL: Even more vaguely, I think we''re trying to be astronauts.I think that''s the public perception—you bridge pop and avant-garde, and you''re somehow outside of it all.
JF: I hope that''s true. I feel like there are different levels that you can take that posture as meaning.Have your careers turned out the way you had imagined?
JL: We didn''t imagine what it was going to be like. Again, it''s sort of the same idea, which is that we saw what was out there when we were growing up, and we didn''t see anyone doing exactly the same thing that we wanted to do. We failed to think of a template. Early on, we tried doing music that was sort of like, well, this will be this kind of music. And then when John and I started doing this thing together, we very consciously thought, we''re not going to figure out what people want; we''re no good at that. We''re going to do the thing that we like instead, and if we''re successful at it, then that''ll be good. But if we''re unsuccessful, at least we''ll be something that we like rather than something we failed to anticipate that other people won''t like.Judging by the enthusiasm of your audience, you''ve managed to do what you wanted and still connect.
JL: A friend of mine''s mom said something that sticks with me all the time. It sounds really pretentious, but it feels sort of right to me. She said, “People recognize the truth when they hear it.” I like to think that that''s the basis of any success. We''re not hugely commercially successful, but we''ve had a kind of success in connecting with people, and that''s maybe the basis for our success.A rabid audience, I guess you would say?
JF: Yeah. Speaking of things to be grateful for, one of the weirder things about our lives is that from the minute we started performing, our act—in air quotes—completely worked. There''s a world of really good music, and there''s a world of really bad music, and the strange thing about audiences is it seems like audiences love bad music. And audiences tend to be kind of indifferent to what people who are musically minded all recognize. There''s a world of unrecognized great musicians out there. It''s such a common story that it''s just a cliché: great musician in obscurity. What''s been our luck [is that] we''ve always gone over in the most immediate sense. There have been periods when we were the critics'' darlings; there have been periods where we''ve gotten total indifference from the general music culture. But to our great delight, when we perform, it always just seems like it''s going down in a glorious way.Is that what makes you keep touring?
JF: It certainly helps. People clapping at the end of your songs is very exciting. It''s hard to get used to that. It''s a good thing, and it''s very validating. It definitely makes you feel like you''re doing something worthwhile.Do you have advice that you could give you someone who''s trying to succeed in music?
JL: Gear! It''s all about gear. Now we turn this back to the gear.JF: [Laughs.] Get more expensive gear! And don''t be afraid of presets.JL: Yeah, that''s a good one.I wasn''t expecting that.
JL: I was being a little facetious.JF: I wasn''t being facetious.JL: The presets thing—that''s totally right.I have one more question. While you''re in Charlotte, will you be visiting the James K. Polk State Historic Site?
JL: I didn''t know there was one. I''ve been to his grave in Nashville. Next time we''re back, maybe. I''m not a big fan of James K. Polk. He''s an example of a kind of politician that we''ve seen over and over again, which is somebody who does [something] unscrupulous and then rationalizes it after the fact. He basically stole a huge amount of land from another country.Your name is inextricably linked with his forever.
JL: I think we need to annotate our songs more. For example, the song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” is a sentiment that is completely…JF: It''s a disaster.JL: …completely unconnected to our personal political beliefs.And that''s from the ''50s, isn''t it?
JL: Yeah.Well, gentlemen, this has been delightful. I enjoyed it very much.
JL: Nice talking to you.JF: Hey, it''s our pleasure. We super enjoyed it.

This is the extended version of the feature story “Conversing with Giants” in the March 2008 issue of EM.

Do you have personal studios in your homes?
JL: Yes, yes, we have pretty much for the last…

JF: I have two personal studios. I have my studio in Brooklyn that we used to rehearse at, and one upstate in the Catskills.

Is that where you live?
JF: Yeah, I spend about half my time up there.

What kind of setup do you have?
JF: Our setups are pretty simple. Basically we''re just running Digital Performer and a bunch of [MIDI modules].

JL: We recently moved over to a lot of software, samplers and synths, from unreliable hardware. Yeah, we have [Mac] G5s. I guess you got a G5, right?

JF: Yeah. We kind of came up with MIDI before digital recording.

JL: Before digital audio.

You used the original MOTU Performer, didn''t you?
JL: Yeah, exactly.

JF: I think our very first album has some Performer tracks.

JL: Well, no, the first album was all drum machine synced to the time code on one of the tracks on the 8-track.

FSK time code?
JL: Exactly, yeah. And then the second record, we got the Mac Plus running Performer, version 1, I think. Pretty much just the drums and bass were on the computer. For some moronic reason I insisted on playing the keyboards live, even though we''d already learned to start doing that stuff. For some reason, Lincoln is all-human, nonquantized keyboards.

You didn''t want to sequence the keyboards?
JL: I don''t know, we were just dipping our toe into sequencing at that point.

JF: And part of it was that we didn''t have unlimited access. A lot of the first couple of albums, the studio time was very graciously stolen by an engineer friend of ours from the studio in which he worked, where we would come in after midnight.

What studio was that?
JF: It was called Studio PASS, the Public Access Synthesizer Studio. They were the first studio in New York, actually I think on the East Coast, that had a Fairlight. There was actually a Fairlight very conspicuously on our very first album, kind of apropos of nothing, because at the time it was the shiniest, newest, most expensive thing you could possibly imagine, and that album is probably the shaggiest, lowest-fi project ever conceived. And yet, every now and then it just kind of enters into the picture for some weird sound.

JL: Our friend Alex Noyes was busily sampling interesting stuff. There was a whole sample library of Three Stooges sound effects that we used on one track.

Was that with the Fairlight?
JL: It was with the Fairlight, yeah. And I think there was an Emulator II at PASS we used on a couple [tracks].

JF: Yeah, but the Fairlight was definitely the thing that was like…

JL: But I''m thinking of the song, “Absolutely Bill''s Mood,” that keyboard was the Emulator II.

They were both 8-bit machines, so you might as well have gone with the Fairlight if you could use it.
JF: Right, well, it was all free. [Studio PASS] was a real creative center; there were definitely a lot of nutty people going through. It''s interesting that the idea of electronic music equaling experimental music has completely gone by the wayside. And maybe that''s fine, but for us, sort of bridging those worlds was actually kind of interesting. To just have something built into your way of working that is involved in personal experimentation is a really great approach. I have to say, I was just thinking about this interview (I saw it on the schedule a couple days ago), but a lot of times people ask you about your philosophy, your approach to recording or writing or how you think of instruments. I think there''s something very catholic (lowercase-C) about our way of working, which is like we actually try a lot of things that we don''t even know if they''re going to work, just with the idea that it will be a new way to work, and that''s worthwhile. It will probably be fruitful if you try to stay versatile.

JL: It''s funny, I think sometimes that involves some technology that''s actually hobbling what you''re doing in some way. You can''t do it the fluid way that you''re used to because of this or that constraint, and that makes you have to work a certain way.

Does technology get in your way a lot when you''re trying to get an idea down?
JL: Absolutely, yeah. I thought that''s what it was for [laughs].

Do you record into Digital Performer while you''re assembling your song ideas?
JL: Yeah, pretty much. In fact, it used to be that the very last thing we''d record was the vocal on our records, and now, very often, that''s the earliest element that winds up in the final version, because it started out in the demo version and was good enough to make its way all the way to the end.

I''ve always gotten the impression that you write the vocals, the lyrics, and the music simultaneously.
JL: That''s the ideal, but that''s pretty rare for me. If you can think up the lyrics and the melody and everything at the same time, you''ve had some strong coffee.

Well, I''ve heard that coffee is your drug of choice.
JL: Yes, yes. But I find it really challenging to make it all come together at once.

Which comes first for you most of the time?
JL: Either. I can write music and then words, or sometimes write down words and come up with music. And we also trade stuff occasionally. John will write some lyrics…

JF: And also sometimes, like, you know, you''ll have a piece of music written and you''ll just kind of like mine your notebook from the previous six months. You can just apply your brilliant cocktail-napkin idea to the thing you just realized that, “Oh, I could just bring this idea into play.”

The way most songwriters work?
JF: Well, I guess that''s right. I don''t know how most songwriters work.

So many people get the impression that this stuff just comes flying out of your head. You sort of have that reputation.
JF: Well, sometimes it does.

JL: Sometimes it does, and often those are the best things, but we''ve done a lot of rewriting of material. As we''ve accumulated a lot of spare parts over the years, we''ve done a lot of just taking old stuff and rewriting.

So it''s like, this song needs a middle eight, and I happen to have this in my back pocket.
JF: I think part of good songwriting is to hide whatever amount of effort you put into it. If you come up with something in 15 minutes, it can be exciting if it sounds really profound. You don''t want to remind people how easy it was. Conversely, if something takes a long time to kind of solve, there''s no upside. People don''t respect you more because it sound labored. Or they don''t enjoy it more. They might respect you more, but they don''t want to listen to it more.

It''s kind of like the old Beatles vs. Rolling Stones approach.
JF: Oh, well, I don''t know. I feel like the Beatles'' music sounds effortless. It''s crafted, but I feel like it gets airborne pretty fast.

JL: I just recently heard the writer Ian McEwan was just saying the whole problem with the Beatles was it sounded schooled, and he was like a big Rolling Stones [fan]. You know, he''s exactly from that generation, especially in Britain, where everything is about whether you like the Beatles or the Stones. I like everything about that guy except for that one particular opinion that he has.

JF: He likes the Stones?

JL: He likes the Stones, yeah, which he''s wrong about.

Well, it sounds like you like the Beatles, then. You''ve chosen sides.
JF: Yeah. I think it''s hard to find something wrong with the Beatles.

JL: [laughter] Whereas there''s something wrong with the Rolling Stones.

JF: Well, there are things slightly wrong with the Beatles.

A lot of where Beatles songs came from was George Martin, the producer they were working with. He was very schooled and sometimes formal in his approach.
JL: But he was also into a kind of spontaneity and a kind of letting go. You take a bunch of stuffy people and tell them, “Cut loose,” and then this is what you get.

You''ve worked with a lot of pretty accomplished producers over the years, and you''ve produced yourself on a few albums.
JF: Bastards, all.

How did the experience of working with the Dust Brothers compare?
JL: It was completely different from everything we''ve done before. We worked with producers who, in a certain way, were kind of traditional. They want to take the material and just sort of polish it, and these guys were not interested in that approach. It was actually a great impulse. It was great different direction for us to go into, because they were willing to fuck shit up.

JF: That''s the technical term.

JL: It''s the thing that we forget we should be trying to do occasionally. It''s just like, throw all the cards in the air and try something else. But their approach was so different. In some ways the actual process was frustrating because they work so differently from the way we work that it took some patience on our part to get to that.

JF: It''s hard to explain the difference between them and other producers. Because they are coming from sort of a hip-hop background, they treat their time in the studio… They''re not worried about preparation time. They''re in the studio trying things every which way they can imagine. Even if they think they''ve got something that''s good, they''re interesting in experimenting to some degree to make something great. John and I tend to give ourselves very free rein when we''re off the clock. If we''re in a project studio, we do all these very time-intensive things that sometimes they''re fruitful and sometimes aren''t. But then when we actually get into the studio and we''re working with our band, we''re quite deliberate and quite focused and tend to work extremely fast.

Most engineers that we work with have a hard time keeping up with us. One of the things about working with Pat Dillett, our long-term collaborator and co-producer, is that he''s one of the few people who''s really capable of working at this manic pace that we''re working.

Working with the Dust Brothers was a big lifestyle adjustment for us because we had had to accommodate their pace, which was just much, much slower. Sometimes it was hard to know even what we were trying to achieve. We would have already recorded the track that would be the final track, but we were trying to figure out if we could top it. That''s just a luxury that we''ve never afforded ourselves. We''ve always had small budgets, and we just kind of came up that way. The time that you''re in the studio, you''re on the clock.

It sounds like their approach was that time, and therefore money, is no object—and you objected to that.
JF: Yeah, exactly, but they''re extremely successful producers. They''re very dedicated to doing outstanding work. We weren''t trying to turn them into hacks.

JL: But they were very true blue in their approach. They were not willing to accept an unfinished or mediocre project, and that was great. That part of it was exactly how we feel about it.

JF: I think one of my strongest memories was being up in Pat''s room, like a little project room, where we were just doing some really crazy guitar overdub on “Withered Hope,” and I was like, “I think that''s good.” It was so weird, I didn''t even really know what we were going for, and it was all on me, and it was just this totally wide-open, nutso improvisational thing. I just didn''t even know how John King was going to edit it together. It was just kind of unclear what we were doing, although the result actually seems quite purposeful. I remember saying, “I think that''s good.” And John King, with this very crazy look in his eye, but very seriously, said, “It''s good, but is it awesome?”