Seattle isn't the first city that comes to mind when someone mentions industrial music. Surrounded by lush forests, snow-capped peaks and the imposing stature of Mt. Rainier, Seattle, for most people, conjures images of SUV-driving thirty-somethings, flannel-clad guitar bands and legions of espresso-fueled computer programmers. However, amid this confluence of Eddie Bauer and Starbucks, German expatriate Sascha Konietzko and his ever-evolving cast of KMFDM conspirators have spent the better part of the past decade turning out their own unique brand of hard-hitting electronic music.
With roots that stretch back to the mid-'80s in Paris, KMFDM is among a select number of acts that have managed to take the disjointed noise and pounding rhythms of industrial music from the European underground to a worldwide audience. The band's music has generally fused processed guitars, driving electronic beats and distorted vocals with a healthy dose of scathing political commentary and tongue-in-cheek theatrics. In its latest incarnation, the group consists of Konietzko, guitarists Joolz Hodgson and Steve White, drummer Andy Selway and vocalists Raymond “Pig” Watts and Lucia Cifarelli.
“It's sort of a conglomeration of people,” Watts explains. “We've all worked on projects together here, there and everywhere. I find the whole concept of bands really rather tedious, especially when you get to be our age. It's sort of a teenage thing. It's rather static and boring, and it's much more exciting to confront yourself with a different fucking ugly face to punch every morning.”
STATE OF FLUX
KMFDM has always been quite adept at changing its approach and sound — often seemingly overnight. The thick, guitar-heavy, mechanized stomp of its 1995 album, Nihil (Wax Trax!), and Xtort (Wax Trax!, 1996) quickly gave way to the stripped-down, Propellerhead-infused, synthesized crawl of their 1997 effort, the oddly titled Symbols (Wax Trax!) album. Much of the variation in style is the direct result of Konietzko's shifting group of collaborators. Although KMFDM has generally remained under his guidance, the past decade has seen his approach change. “It is really a collaborative effort,” Konietzko explains. “The one thing that is totally new in KMFDM is real socialism or real communism. Everyone is involved to exactly the same degree.”
With the Symbols album and later with the group's MDFMK project, Konietzko, who had previously shouldered most of the production and engineering duties, began working closely with then-programmer/engineer/guitarist Tim Skold. Konietzko and Skold were better able to collaborate on those projects by each building compatible Digidesign Pro Tools TDM-based studios. With an array of hot-swap drives, the pair could easily move projects back and forth and work on songs in isolation. However, with Skold's departure from the group in 2001, Konietzko enlisted the assistance of his touring band for the group's latest studio effort, WWIII (Sanctuary, 2003).
“We finished the tour last summer, and our drummer and guitarist, Andy and Joolz, said that they were planning on moving to Seattle, and they asked what was going on,” Konietzko explains. “So I said, ‘Let's just make use of your presence and start working on a new album.’ And since we were just, I don't know, blown over from the tour, we didn't really have any sort of concept as to what we were going to do. We had a title but not a concept.
“I think what really pleasantly surprised me,” he continues, “after Tim Skold left, there was a bit of a void. Tim and I used to work on a sort of programmer-to-programmer kind of level, and Joolz really filled the space more than sufficiently. He turned out to be not just a guitarist and a wild guy, but he's also a really gifted recording engineer.”
ON THE MOVE
One of the first things that Konietzko did in preparation for the new album was to outfit his band with compatible recording setups. “The first thing we did was buy a Pro Tools TDM rig for Joolz and Andy so they could be mobile,” Konietzko says. “They have basically their own studio. We have a rehearsal space which doubles as a live room. And then I have the mothership studio here in my house. And that's just a slightly larger TDM system than Joolz's. So everything would be recorded on location and then come back into my room, and we would just assemble everything here. The sonic palette really came in from real recordings. We just bought a collection of nice microphones that kept us mobile. The whole idea behind making this record was to be as mobile and transportable as possible — to just be able to throw a whole little recording rig into a trunk and do it anywhere. We would use external studios for more space: particular-sounding rooms, particular microphone selections, et cetera.”
Immediately, the biggest change for the band was the presence of a live drummer. All of the group's previous efforts had started from a bed of programmed percussion, synths and samples. With a seasoned group of musicians on hand, KMFDM felt like starting this album differently. “We were writing from a drummer-and-guitarist point of view,” Hodgson says. “And that seemed to dictate how things would [progress] with the writing.”
“So the first thing we did was, since working with a real drummer was a new thing in KMFDM, we started just right away recording drums,” Konietzko says. “[We were] recording almost like in a ‘rock group’ scenario: just recording instruments. And what happened is a total inversion of the usual approach, where first the machine parts happen and then the organic stuff becomes the icing on the cake. With this record, it was exactly the other way around. We made a pretty organic-sounding number of tracks and then brought in all of the technical trickeries and keyboard/synthesizer stuff.”
EVERYTHING IN ITS PLACE
The group worked by dividing the recording process across the members' respective areas of expertise. Hodgson and Selway worked on tracking drums and guitars while Konietzko handled more of the computer-borne and synthesizer-based tasks. “Sascha really firmly has his hands on the electronics and the synth programming,” Hodgson explains. “And I've been recording and running studios for 15-odd years. I've always been really up on live drum and guitar recording. Since this is the first KMFDM album to feature a live drummer, it was kind of left to me and the drummer to sit down and bash it all out.”
Hodgson's technique for incorporating live drums into tracks that would eventually include sampled and electronic elements began by creating a sketch of the song in Pro Tools. “With the drums, usually it was a case of putting a rough arrangement of a song [together] and programming some drums to sort of simulate what our drummer would be doing,” Hodgson explains. “Myself and the drummer would sit there and do that, and then we'd take it down to the studio. We'd mike up the kit and work out exactly how he'd play it live, and then after a bunch of takes, we'd stick some stuff down and then really hard-edit it through Pro Tools. The only limitation we had, really, was that I was only running eight inputs as far as drum mics. I didn't have the opportunity to put up huge stereo ambiences or mike up the kick with three different mics. It was a pretty standard approach with close-miking and one room mic for ambience.
“We were maybe more strict with the editing than we normally would be if there were no electronics going on,” he continues. “If everything has been chopped up and quantized and put on a grid, to my mind anyway, the drums should be absolutely spot on with it. So after the drums were laid down, that was where the time was spent — just really tidying things up. I mean, Andy is a really tidy drummer anyway, so it wasn't that much hard work.”
For Konietzko, after years of producing albums totally within a sequencer-based environment, he only felt inspired to use a handful of synths on this record, and he relied more on recording parts live than strict programming. “The only synths we used on this album were the Nord Lead 2x, the Access Indigo and the Virus plug-in,” he says. “The Virus plug-in was used mainly for synth basses. It was a bit of a cumbersome thing, as my real Virus broke a couple of years ago, and it's just sitting in a box now. But when I'm working, I'm just going for the sounds I like. I'll make a patch, and I'll think, ‘This could probably work really well on this song or that song.’ And I'll try them out, and, usually, they totally work. There was hardly any programming on this record. The MIDI files are far and few. Everything for the most part was played in and just nudged into the right position.”
An unmistakable linchpin of any industrial-sounding record, KMFDM or otherwise, is the guitar sound. Although, at moments, several of the tracks on WWIII become quite thick with live percussion, textures and other layers, the band's approach to recording guitars is actually very simple. “The guitar processing is mostly plug-in — based or SansAmp stuff,” Konietzko says. “We don't really record much from our amps. Everything is really inside of a Pro Tools environment. We record guitar clean and then do the chopping and snipping and then re-amp them.”
“It's nearly all Amp Farm,” Hodgson adds. “Because of the nature of the way we wrote the stuff, it seemed to make a lot more sense to piece the performances together rather than have a standard band format, which is to go into a rehearsal room for three months, bash it all out, mike the amp, and off you go. There is just a lot more control being able to change sounds at a later date and to edit stuff up. So the songs didn't always have to be strictly written before they were arranged. Soundwise, I was combining Amp Farm with Amplitude and putting those two together, but I was nearly always using the JCM-800 settings on Amp Farm with a bit of EQ post. There are bits and pieces of filters and some other stuff going on, but it's nearly all done inside Pro Tools. When we got into the studio to mix, [our engineer] Chris [Shepard] was quite keen to farm some of the guitar sounds back out through various analog processors and stuff. And that certainly sat pretty well with me.”
INTO THE RED
Although Konietzko and Hodgson created the majority of the instruments and textures, the later stages of the songwriting process fell on the group's three vocalists: Konietzko, Cifarelli and Watts. “The way we work vocalwise is, everybody gets to hear all of the stuff,” Konietzko says. “And then, Lucia, Raymond and I take our picks on the songs. And then that becomes the delegation of who becomes the principle writer of that song. For the track ‘Pity for the Pious,’ I played all of the bass stuff and the loops that you hear in the background. And it was so dirty and sort of Raymond-sounding that there was no doubt he would latch onto that one — same with ‘Bullets, Bombs & Bigotry’; it was calling Raymond's name in its infancy stage.”
“The boys generally come up with an idea,” Cifarelli adds. “And I don't think it's a real conscious decision that one song might work for me or Raymond or Sascha. We just kind of write what we feel, and they'll play me a bunch of tracks and say, ‘Hey, what are you gravitating toward?’ I'll obviously be part of the arranging of the track once I come up with a melody and a lyric. I'll say, ‘Can we move this here or this there?’ But nine times out of 10, the track is perfect as-is. I'll sometimes labor over the lyrics or the melody for quite some time, and then I'll bring it to the boys, and I'll share my ideas with them, and they'll give me their thoughts.”
For Konietzko and Cifarelli, the process was fairly straightforward, as they were both on location in Seattle and could easily contribute their ideas. With Watts, who lives and works in London, the process was slightly more complicated. “Raymond is a bit on the outside,” Konietzko says. “We don't really see him all the time. So we kept a lot of stuff sort of on the side for him, and we'd just send him MP3s to listen to and get prepped. He came over, and in two weeks or so, we nailed down all of his vocal parts — lead vocals and backing vocals on other tracks. We just really had an agenda and followed through point to point. With Lucia, it was easier because she lives in Seattle. So whenever we wanted to do something with her, she was easily available. We could just knock that out at any given time. Lucia works totally the old-fashioned way: She uses a Walkman, and she goes to work out or whatever, and she just preps herself that way.”
Before Watts came to Seattle, the group attempted to record his vocals through long-distance communication. But in the end, they decided Watts needed to be in the same space to get everything down right. “They'd just send up some stereo backing tracks on CD,” Watts says. “And we'd burn it into the computer, and I'll sing some stuff and burn it on CD and send it back. Within seven seconds, I can say, ‘I've got a handle on it.’ I envision something, and that's the fucking handle to the song. When that little light goes on, I scribble the words down, and that's the process. But it ended up, for some reason, that they wanted me to come out there. I think it was an excuse to eat some fucking sushi and look at some whales and stuff. So I flew out to Seattle and recut a few bits.”
The group used specific Neumann mics for each vocalist: Konietzko used a U 47, Watts switched between a U 67 and a U 87, and Cifarelli used a TLM 193. The vocal chain sometimes included an Avalon 737 preamp. But the group wasn't attached to any one location or approach for recording the vocals. “Vocals were done in all the different locations here, partly at Studio X, partly in my closet, partly at the rehearsal room, partly at a small studio in Seattle,” Konietzko says.
PROCESS, PROCESS, PROCESS
“After about eight months or so,” Konietzko says, “we took the whole album, flew to Chicago and hooked up with Chris Shepard, our traditional recording engineer who is now running CRC [Chicago Recording Company] there. And we just holed up for about a month and finished mixing the record.”
Some of the final touches to the album, both before and during the mixing process, included adding the classic KMFDM vocal distortion. “It's a combination of overdriven tube compressors and mic pre's and stuff like that,” Konietzko continues. “We always use this little thing, this old rackmount distortion box called the Real Tube, that's always a good little box to put on vocals. We also used Antares Tube. That one served pretty well through the preproduction just to basically simulate the real sound. When we mixed at Chicago Recording, they have a shitload of really cool, antiquated outboard gear, so we really broke out of the Pro Tools system there.
“The biggest change from all of the other records,” Konietzko concludes, “was to consistently work throughout an entire record with a live drummer and have this driving live drum sound. That, to me, makes all the difference now.”
EXCESSIVE STUDIO FORCE
Access Indigo synth
Akai S3000 sampler
Apple Cinema Display
Atari 1040ST computer
Avalon VT-737sp preamps (2)
C-Lab MIDI sequencer
Clavia Nord Lead 2x synth
Digidesign 888|24 audio interface
Digidesign Core card
Digidesign Mix Farm cards (3)
Digidesign ProControl control surface
Digidesign Pro Tools 5.x
Doepfer MS-404 synth
Emagic Unitor8 mk II MIDI interface
E-mu Emax II sampler
Genelec 1042 monitors
Neumann KMS 105, TLM 193, U 47, U 67, U 87 mics
Sequential Circuits Pro-One synth
Western Digital FireWire hard drives