Jacob Thiele (far left), Dapose, Todd Fink, Clark Baechle and Joel Peterson
Photo: Bill Sitzmann
“Skateboarding…that's what we did before the band,” says Todd Fink, thinking back over 10 years to a time before he was the frontman for Omaha, Neb., quintet The Faint. Along with bassist/guitarist Joel Petersen (also known as Broken Spindles), synth player/tone-sculptor Jacob Thiele, guitarist/bassist Dapose and his brother, drummer/beat-programmer Clark Baechle, Fink has ollied out from concrete bowls and into concert halls during a decade that The Faint and the band's then-label Saddle Creek helped establish Omaha's presence on the indie circuit.
“Joel, Clark and myself, we were pretty good at it,” Fink continues. “We spent years doing it, and it wasn't as popular and all over TV as it is now, but we had some success. Skating was a different kind of scene when it was our lives, but I relate it to being in a band in that it showed me that if I really commit to doing something I love, something can become of it. Without that belief, we probably wouldn't have been able to start the band in the first place. But I think anyone who accomplishes anything starts out delusional. So embrace those delusions.”
For The Faint, those delusions have culminated in the 10 tracks of Fasciinatiion (blank.wav, 2008), the group's fifth album. Emerging in the late '90s — at the same time as The Rapture and Ladytron — The Faint was initially lumped in with a loosely connected new-romantic/post-punk revival. But the band — quick to admit existing in a bubble, partly due to geography and partly due to personality — paid little heed, occupying themselves by establishing increased control over music production, art direction, an interactive Web presence and, eventually, real estate — all holdings under The Faint umbrella.
Fasciinatiion (the title spelling a nod to Fink's sticky laptop keyboard and the way he labeled his demos) is the band's first album since the 2004 Wet From Birth (Saddle Creek). It's the first album wholly self-recorded and produced in the band's new studio, ENAMEL. And it's the first album to be released on the band's own blank.wav imprint.
“We might be a tighter live band if we had approached the performance aspect of it like skating,” Fink admits. “But being in this band isn't about landing a trick till you can get it right every time. I always like to get something new — doesn't matter what it is; I just want to be around something that I don't always know how it works because it always seems to have some magic inside. Not understanding what you're doing at first is fantastic.”
Support for Fink's open-ended approach can be found just by looking at The Faint's newly established label name, blank.wav, an echo from the band's sophomore album, Blank-Wave Arcade (Saddle Creek, 1999). You could break it down to blank wave — an unmodulated waveform, a symbol of infinite potential or frustration depending on the position in the creative process. Or perhaps blank wave — in that The Faint began as a band prior to the ubiquity of a Pro Tools studio in every bedroom musician's laptop and the ability to edit waveforms visually on a computer screen. From the days of old-school outboard to supervirtual, The Faint has kept the answer to what's the best approach intentionally blank.
“On Wet From Birth, we just sat around the computer recording a track at a time, seeing who would play the next bass line,” recalls Thiele, who first engaged The Faint as a heckler and then joined the band during the Blank-Wave Arcade period because, as a fan of Brian Eno's theory-lined atmospherics and The Locust's art-damaged synth-strafing, he really wanted to play the band's Korg Poly-61. “I feel like the misconception of who we are as people after Danse Macabre helped shape Wet From Birth. A lot of people expected us to be really goth, depressed, dreary dudes that wore black leather, so we spent a year trying to capture more of why it's fun to see us live — the energetic, upbeat side of the band, not the part that dwells on the darker side of life. Except at times we ended up taking that goal kind of seriously during the process.” [Laughs.]
“With Fasciinatiion, we started by going back to the way we used to: five dudes in a basement rockin' out and composing from ‘One, two, three, play,''” Thiele says. “We did that for a while, but then we realized there was something too meticulous, recording every idea and weeding out the bad ones. I feel we learned that there's kind of a reason for using both approaches, and it depends on the song.”
“I think our initial idea of the record was quite a bit different,” concurs Petersen, who from his longtime interest with gear (ENAMEL was built around his Trident Series 24 console) took on an unofficial role as engineer, though production is equally credited to all. “We were going to react to Wet From Birth, which was somewhat more of a project. So we were going to stand in a room with instruments, writing as humans, not MIDI. And then nothing happened since we're not a jam band. Once we got more into exploring methods than sticking to a single direction, the songs started coming even freer.”
A NEW VENEER
Having previously composed in “The Orifice” — a broken washer/dryer warehouse turned into a practice space and band offices — The Faint then purchased a 19th-century former mortuary in downtown Omaha. Establishing a new practice space on the top floor, the band took the floor below to establish a home for the band's gear and Petersen's studio arsenal: the Trident, his Pro Tools and outboard rig. (See “ENAMEL Sampler” sidebar; for a full gear list, visit Remixmag.com.) The space was initially intended to develop the band's own material, but it was kept modular enough to attract other producers and musicians who could appreciate a completely MIDI-threaded facility bridging tracking and post-production, as a lot of The Faint's synth and effects manipulation happen in the control room during sessions.
To achieve this goal, The Faint hired North Carolina-based studio designer and acoustic consultant Wes Lachot (www.weslachot.com). “He comes from the Tape Op world more than the Mix world,” Petersen says. “And that's where I'm at; I do this for the love of immediate hands-on production more than wanting to use a multi-million dollar commercial compound.” Lachot's name was already out there because he had been in Omaha overseeing ARC Studios for Saddle Creek's Mike Mogis (a member of Bright Eyes and the producer of The Faint's Wet From Birth), so the band met with him to plan out ENAMEL, with construction beginning in 2006.
“Every project is different, sure, and The Faint's studio was very interesting because of the building,” Lachot explains. “That building had challenges: It had a certain long, narrow shape. It may be 150 feet long and 24 feet wide, and with moderate ceiling-height issues. Plus, the floor above is their personal rehearsal space. But we managed [to get the orientation/isolation] and were actually able to use a lot of the funkiness — some of the older brick, natural wood floors. You get the feeling you're in a place that's part of the history. I like the reused aspect — gives it a more rock 'n' roll feel.
“We installed an array of swinging panels in the tracking room, built with RPG Diffusor Systems,” Lachot continues. “This allows you to change from a more dead to a more live sound, tweak the decay characteristics. We actually custom-built new cabinetry for the console. We had a somewhat local woodworker, Jeff McCabe, do it — a really nice job. It put the console at the right height for the reflection-free acoustics of the wall-mounted speaker control room design, kept things exact for stereo symmetry and kept room to accompany several large keyboards. All of that was done in maple to match the vintage floors.”
Mogami cable was routed throughout and back to the Trident's custom patchbay. Rear and side, pressure-zone membrane and velocity-zone trapping were installed in the control room to ensure bass was kept solid and clear at 30 Hz — no ghosty, muddy-sounding tones from flat wall cancellations allowed.
“I don't know if the band has a sweet spot, but there's definitely a spot where dodging often needs to happen,” Petersen reflects. “We have low, gritty synth sounds, so we need the kick drums to sit right and the low end to feel good and tight. I'd come in early and work on ‘the mix,'' setting it up for the day for others to work on. I definitely enjoyed the control room when working with finding that low-mid balance, and also with small sounds — subtle frequencies. I remember some people hearing some tracks and wondering what we were doing. But I knew it was badass — dry as fuck and rad. And in a way by being questioned, it reaffirmed our confidence in what we're doing, which is to always search for new territory.”
Additionally, the band had special rolling goboes made, allowing for localized dead zones for recording multiple instruments in one room without booths.
The result of all this effort was a studio geared directly toward The Faint's needs but able to accommodate unseen circumstances — a project studio gone pro. In this case, it's a studio able to accurately capture and mangle tones from any source in real time, as well as symbolize the band's hybridization of reappropriated analog and digitally extended means.
THE GEEKS WERE RIGHT
“After construction was completed [in 2007], I was happy to have the seemingly endless options, but I was especially happy to have the extended time,” Petersen says. “We started doing a lot of tracking right away, keeping it live. But then we redid a lot. When I started recording my guitar stuff for this record, my initial setup was so elaborate, with mics doing stereo, plus room mics in all sorts of configurations. And, ultimately, I would end up redoing it all — just throwing up a Royer R-121. Our initial drum tracking was ridiculous, with so many mics in the live room. And it sounded good, but it didn't necessarily serve the songs the best. Eventually, we ended up putting drums in the smaller iso room to deaden the shit out of them, and in hindsight it gave us our own sound more than the big room.”
“We've tried some different types of experiments,” Fink adds. “‘Battle Hymn for Children,'' the last song on the record, we played out live with a version more like [OutKast's] ‘Bombs Over Baghdad,'' while the record is a lighter, smoother thing. But the point is to keep trying till you find the character that fits the song.”
Out of this voltage-spiked vortex and games of stylistic hopscotch has emerged an album in which re-amped synths, sometimes stringy, sometimes spiny, growl and burble from every song. “One thing that has pretty much touched everything I've done is a Doepfer A-100 modular synth,” Petersen says. “I was a bit of a Lego kid, and part of me finds that signal paths are just interesting. It's fun to run a hi-hat through and patch stuff in and suddenly you haven't heard that sound even though it still functions as a hi-hat.”
In some songs guitars have conversations in rapid-fire Morse code, and a skewed yet musically sound solo may recall Captain Beefheart even as circuits gurgle and bend, while in other songs one synth's filter molests another's folds, tone wheels yawn, and 100 ms of delay is the only reprieve for the parched.
“Our manager said that the tom sound on ‘Get Seduced'' sounded like someone broke into Baskin-Robbins and hit the empty ice-cream containers, and we said cool,” Petersen says. “He was being a little snotty, but I took it as a compliment.”
The band's applications of Celemony Melodyne help act as a counterpoint. The varying tuning and stretching effects — fine-tuned patiently by Fink and Baechle — can be heard on vocals and bass in different songs. All elements are treated (and re-treated) equally, as Fink says he is not precious of his vocals; he strives for mood as much as meaning, using whatever tools are at hand. Themes of straightforward individuals interacting (“Psycho,” “I Treat You Wrong”) and childhood nostalgia (“Fulcrum & Lever”) balance against much more nihilistic outlooks on science versus religion (“Machine in the Ghost”), technology's possible coups against humanity and how zeros and ones will change the course of electricity (“The Geeks Were Right”), plus the pitched and smeared perspectives of wartime (“Battle Hymn for Children”).
With no songs escaping revision and some songs drastically different from their genesis, Fink credits each member of the group as equal musician and remixer. Even using the same synth, each member would approach from a different knob, and every member has a veto when it comes to arrangements. Fasciinatiion is a collection of five people's perspectives working much like their synths: amped by and run through one another. The only distinct outside role went to Ted Jensen, who did the mastering at Sterling Sound in New York. And Germany's Boys Noize, who has worked within ENAMEL, is likely to contribute remixes.
From building the studio to finishing the latest album, the whole process went a long way with an optimistic attitude. “Fasciinatiion: The title isn't a directive or command on how to feel about the record,” Fink concludes. “It's hopefully just a contagious outlook, finding the good part of what you've experienced rather than just picking apart the bad; you can feel good about noticing even little shitty stuff…so long as you're gaining a perspective you didn't previously have. I always carry around the delusion that we're on the brink of a significant change, and now we're even more suited to set up scenarios to capture that luck and arrange it.”
EXCLUSIVE FULL GEAR LIST
Computer, DAW, console, hardware
Apple PowerMac G5 with OS 10.4
Alesis MasterLink Mastering CD Recorder
Crane Song HEDD 192 A/D converter
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD2 TDM 7.4.1
Trident Series 24 console
Synths, software, drum brain, amps
Ampeg SVT bass amp
ARP Solina String Ensemble
Ashdown ABM 500 EVO bass amp
Celemony Melodyne software
Dave Smith Poly Evolver
Doepfer A-100, MS-404
Fender Deluxe Reverb guitar amp
JoMoX JaZBase03 drum brain
Korg 770, MS-20, Poly-61
Native Instruments Battery soft sampler
Novation SuperNova II
Studio Electronics Omega 2
Preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Analogue Solutions Phobos Filtered Coffee filter
API 3124+ preamp
(2) Avalon U5 preamp/DIs
BSS DPR-901 II EQ
(2) dbx 160A compressors
Drawmer DS201 gate
Electro-Harmonix NY2A compressor
(3) Empirical Labs Distressor EL8X
EMT 140 Plate Reverb
Eventide H8000FW effects processor
Korg SDD-2000 digital delay
Lexicon Prime Time digital delay
Line 6 PODxt Pro
Moog Moogerfooger Ring Modulator
Roland SRE-555 Chorus Echo
TC Electronic Reverb 4000
Universal Audio 2-610 preamp, 2-1176 compressor
Valley People 440 compressor/limiter
AKG C 451 B/ST, C 518 M, C 4500 B-BC
Audio Technica AT4033a
Chameleon Labs TS-1
Neumann M 147
(2)Sennheiser e609, (2) e604, (2) MD 421 II, MD 441
Shure SM7, SM57, Beta 57, Beta 52
Monitors, amp, monitor mixers
Bryston 4B SST power amplifier
Furman HDS-16/HRM-16 headphone monitoring system
Tannoy System 15DMT speakers
To help them spark new ideas in the studio, The Faint swears by these Mac OS X Widgets as creative ignition. Here, Joel Petersen and Jacob Thiele talk about their favorites.
iCage: The John Cage quote of the day is helpful in putting yourself into a creative mindset.
Oblique Strategies: Brian Eno's random problem-solver. Perfect for when you run into a studio snag and want an outside opinion, especially since that outside opinion is Eno's. Usually it helps get a different perspective; sometimes it's way off.
Dictionary/Thesaurus: Obviously, the dictionary can be helpful when writing lyrics. Maybe you should avoid the thesaurus, though — you don't want to end up sounding like Alanis Morissette.
BPM Tap: Useful when thinking of changing the tempo and a metronome isn't handy.
Pro Tools Tip of the Day: It's never too late to learn something new.
The Weather Forecast: It helps you realize that there is a world outside of the studio control room.