Daylight Breaks

Sophomore albums can be tricky even more so if they arrive off the back of a sleeper record that achieved commercial success via a flashy car advertisement
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Sophomore albums can be tricky even more so if they arrive off the back of a sleeper record that achieved commercial success via a flashy car advertisement

Sophomore albums can be tricky — even more so if they arrive off the back of a sleeper record that achieved commercial success via a flashy car advertisement featuring a nubile young woman doing a bit of double-jointed dancing. So perhaps it's a good thing that Dirty Vegas left the dance-floor behind and produced an album that, at first listen, might seem more suited for the bedroom than a dark, smoky club.One(Capitol, 2004) is not so much a successor to the South London — based trio's self-titled 2002 debut (Capitol); it's an unexpected, carefully considered turn that started with the band loading up a van with the bare necessities, driving to remote studios and taking a step back from the traditional house-music writing that earned Dirty Vegas its fame. Yes, that's right: Dirty Vegas, the Grammy Award — winning dance act whose ubiquitous “Days Go By” tune helped launch several fleets of Mitsubishis into garages across America, has ditched the dancefloor and gone rock — electronically charged, yes, but rock nonetheless.

“I'm sure all the people who thought we were this sloppy dance act are going, ‘Oh, my God,’” says Paul Harris with a chuckle. Paul, the DJ and co-programmer of the group, runs the software and sampler components during live performances while Steve Smith sings and Ben Harris (no relation) handles guitars. Paul credits their rigorous tour schedule for shifting the focus of their music. “We got a drummer and a bass player, and we ended up sounding like the new album as we were touring towards the end,” he says. “All the stuff on the old album — ‘Days Go By,’ et cetera — they do not sound like they do anymore. They're still very electronic, but now we've got a really nice live feel to them.”


This new emphasis is clear from the first few moments of the album. Whereas Dirty Vegas exuded a cool, slick, vaguely French air over pumping house beats, One is all intimate moments; earnest lyrics; and swelling, dynamic songwriting with a few snappy breakbeats and churning bass lines thrown into the mix. Taken together, Dirty Vegas' two albums serve well as snapshots of dance music's evolution and regeneration. After all, “Days Go By” hit the market when dance music was at the crest of its mainstream popularity. In 2002, Moby, the Chemical Brothers and the Crystal Method were household names; DJs were the new rock stars; and electronic beats permeated advertisements, pop songs and even restaurant soundtracks all around the world.

In 2004, however, One captures the mood of seasoned clubbers taking a breather and notes the blurred-beyond-recognition boundaries between rock and dance music. “The whole climate of music has changed,” Paul concedes. “We couldn't go out and make another dance album. As you can hear by the tracks [on Dirty Vegas], every eight bars, something would change, which is quite classic house-music writing. This time around, we've done it more song-based. The tracks just go along at their own pace. You don't have to change every eight bars; you don't have to have an extra hi-hat and extra snare to make it sound like it's a proper record.”

That's not to say Dirty Vegas has completely ditched its digital studio pieces in favor of acoustic guitars. With the help of a few keyboards (including a Waldorf MicroWaveXTk, a Clavia Nord Lead 3 and a Korg MS2000R), Spectrasonics software, a Native Instruments Pro-52 software synth and a Roland TB-303 drum machine, the three pieced together live snippets with soft-synth lines, looped live drums and sampled and live strings. But Paul maintains that much of the equipment is fairly superfluous in the long run. “In the studio, we've got an SSL desk, but you really don't need it,” he says. “You just need to go somewhere with some really solid computer systems and some really good ideas. If you've got some great ideas, you can make really good records just on a laptop. I've got a Power G4. I make remixes on it and stuff like that. I can use a lot of soft synths and MIDI keyboards just to play the actual, proper sounds on the record.”

The new Dirty Vegas album is a tribute to electronic enhancement of acoustic music, not an exercise in how to replace it with machines. And the band neither uses lots of fancy instruments nor purposefully incorporates all of the random, lucky accidents that happen by banging harpsichord strings with rubber mallets or any of that malarkey — the trio's approach is more straightforward, to the point and fairly direct. Just get the guys a Mac G4, a guitar, some synths, and they're off. “We're now very, very organic the way we write stuff,” Paul says of their current approach to making music. “The tracks might be written with just two acoustic guitars, and then we try and work out what simply works and get some drum loops up and get them working with guitars and then write the song there. But then once the song's down, we can take all of the guitars away and then work it that way 'round. So you've got the song structure in place, then add to it whatever musical instruments need to be added.”


This is precisely what the Dirty Vegas boys did when they struck out on a 16-hour drive up to the northeast coast of Scotland and the long drive to Cornwall, England, where remote, isolated cottages served as creative ground for many of the tracks on One. “We were just sick of recording in our studio in London with all the distractions,” Paul says. “We put our stuff, our Pro Tools rig, in a van and drove out to the countryside. We recorded everything with literally a couple of Shure SM57 mics. That's why it doesn't sound amazingly well-recorded and quite crusty, but that's quite a nice little feel for drums. The next time we record an album, we will definitely go record somewhere else. It's so much quicker — we could have had this album out a year earlier if we had gotten out of London!”

Paul credits Spectrasonics' Stylus, Trilogy and Atmosphere virtual instruments for speeding the process along, as well. “If you've got those to start off with, you've got the guts for making a whole album,” he says. “You can put patches on each one, and it just makes it really simple to get ideas out. Maybe if the sounds are not right, you can change it at the end, but it's great to get rough ideas going.”

Breaking down the boundary between rock and dance music wasn't an entirely conscious effort, but technological wizardry definitely tweaked the album in ways that human beings simply cannot replicate. “The record obviously sounds very live-made, but it was still made in the studio using loops and electronics,” Paul points out. “All of the drums are played live, but they're all chopped up in computers. It's not like a band: Here we go; let's start and only do one take. The big difference is the new album was recorded and mixed to make it sound great at home. It was mixed on an SSL — the big difference is the bottom end.”


For One, Dirty Vegas stuck to its original electronic roots but was aware that a purely electronic album like its debut would lack the warmth and intimacy that the group had worked to establish on tour. “We are using the computers to manipulate the sounds in ways they really shouldn't,” Paul says. So recording with a live feel became a new goal for the trio.

To tackle the problem in the studio, Paul and Ben chose to focus on the drums. “If you're trying to program them, it's impossible to get the right velocities on the hi-hats or stuff like snares to give it that live feel,” Paul explains. “It loses its dynamics, and some of it is very linear. So it's good to have your computer running a click track with just a kick drum, then play live hats on top. Then, you can just chop them about and get really good eight-bar loops.”

Dirty Vegas also stumbled upon a new technique for adding body and resonance to the drums. “We found out how all of these hip-hop producers get their really good drum ideas,” Paul says. “You just put loads and loads of reverb on it, so it just sort of comes back on itself. You put the reverb on before the compression. It sort of kicks it and sucks it back up on itself. You get this really, really solid beat. You can't really hear it, but you can really feel it.”

Adding to the depth and ambience of the album is a healthy dose of live and sampled strings. The Vegas boys turned to Atmosphere and a string patch called Lush Hybrid Strings as well as a sample CD titled Smart Violins by Peter Siedlaczek, compensating for the stiffness of sampling by tweaking the volumes and velocities with Apple Logic. “Atmosphere was good for getting string ideas, but, of course, it certainly doesn't give you the right feel,” Paul admits. “[Smart Violins], of course, gives you perfect-sounding strings, and then, if need be, the parts you use you can get replayed the way you like … [but] hearing the change from a synth string sound to real live strings — it's unbelievable. And we're going, ‘Never use sampled strings on tracks. Always use real, live strings.’ And then we found out how much it cost, and we went, ‘Okay, occasionally use real, live strings.’”


Adapting the new songs to the stage for a variety of scenarios — from an early-evening show to a late-night, club-oriented crowd — is made possible by the sample-based loop system Ableton Live. “With Live, you can have an idea, get it in there and start jamming stuff live, feeding loops in and out and getting a really good feel for a track within the space of a couple hours,” Paul says. “You can record on the fly and play back what you've just done. I would recommend it to anyone that's going out playing live, without a shadow of a doubt. We can change our set accordingly — make it harder, make it more synth-based. The way we're running stuff, we can run lots of stuff through computers and effects units and add new stuff on the tracks.”

He pauses, then sheepishly notes that they've been familiarizing themselves with the program for, oh, six weeks. “We are absolutely shitting ourselves,” he admits. “[But] I've been told this rig is absolutely rock-solid. When we first ever went on tour with Moby, we were running stuff straight off Logic with Macs. They would crash now and again while we were doing stuff, which was an absolute nightmare. Since we've been using Live, it's been absolutely solid. It takes in a lot of information, and it's very, very good for us. I'm knocking on wood at the moment, but let's hope it keeps as rock-solid, because we're doing Live on Pete Tong's show next week. You'll know if you hear lots of swearing that the system's gone down!”

Solid system or not, Live is the appropriate program to assist Dirty Vegas' evolution from a men-and-machines stage show to a live rock 'n' roll outfit. “There's no more facelessness,” Paul says. “It's quite high-tech, so I have to make sure it's always running properly! I can't get too pissed anymore before I play. Beforehand, when we were doing stuff all on computers, when the track finishes, it finishes. But now, you can carry on doing stuff over and over again. It gives a lot more time to breathe. You can perform the tracks better live. It just gives a breath of fresh air.”

Perhaps One will signify what Dirty Vegas did two years ago: another turn in the colorful history of dance music. Or it could just be that this new album is the sound of the acid-house-weaned musicians maturing. “The three of us are getting to the sort of age where we can't listen to club music all day long,” Paul admits. “We're not 18 anymore! It shows in some of our music that we write. We certainly haven't left the club scene, though. If you listen to One properly, it's got the same essential feel about it [as Dirty Vegas], but none of it you'd hear at a club at 3 o'clock in the morning.”

Maybe that's it: The band is growing up, chilling out and moving on from acid-house madness. And more likely than not, its fans are doing the same. If anything, Dirty Vegas appears to be flipping the switch on its music from night to day, but if the change of mood outlined by One is any indication, there's no predicting what Dirty Vegas will do next.


Computer, DAW, recording hardware:
Apple Mac G4 computer, Logic Pro 7 software
Mitsubishi Diamond Pro 2024U monitors (2)

Consoles, mixers, interfaces:
Emagic Logic Control control surface
Solid State Logic 4048 G+ console

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:
Akai S3200XL sampler
Pioneer CDJ-500 DJ CD player
Roland R-8 MKII drum machine
Technics SL-1200 turntables (2)

Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Ableton Live software
Clavia Nord Lead 3 synth
Fender CyberTwin guitar amp
Korg MS2000R rack synth
Marshall JCM 2555 guitar amp
Native Instruments Absynth, Pro-52 soft synths
Roland JD-800, TB-303 Bass Line synths
Spectrasonics Atmosphere, Stylus, Trilogy virtual instruments
Waldorf MicroWaveXT rack synth, MicroWaveXTk synth

Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:
Alesis QuadraVerb effects processor
AMS Neve 1081 channel amplifier, 33609/J stereo compressor/limiter
Avalon Vt-737sp preamp/compressor
dbx 160X compressor, 160SL stereo compressor/limiter
Drawmer DS201B Dual Gate
Empirical Labs Distressor
Focusrite Green 2 Focus EQs (2), ISA220 mic preamp/EQ
Lexicon MPX1, PCM80, PCM91 effects processors
Manley Massive Passive stereo EQ, Variable-Mu limiter/compressor
Neumann TLM 103 mic
Purple Audio MC76 1176-type limiter
Roland SRV-330 Dimensional Space Reverb effects unit
Shure SM57 mics (2)
Solid State Logic G384 compressor
SPL 9320 Stereo Vitalizer
TC Electronic GMajor guitar effects processor, Reverb 4000 (4)
Tech 21 SansAmp PSA-1 preamp
Teletronix LA-2A leveling amplifier

Alesis RA-100 reference power amp
Dynaudio BM15As (2)
Yamaha NS10Ms (2)