Free Spirit

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Photo: Nora Lezano

Some things change, some stay the same. In Jamie Lidell's case, it's this simple but effective balance that has put new energy into his latest project, an evocative album he's simply dubbed Jim. Recorded in Los Angeles, Paris and Berlin, Lidell stuck with his trademark soulful sound and standout vocals but gave up a good portion of the control to his collaborators this time around — a new approach that has made all the difference.

“It was really good to work with Justin and Robbie,” Lidell says. “Usually I'm on my own, tracking everything by myself, so it was nice to have someone else doing that for a change. I was allowed to concentrate on other things.”

Justin is Beck bandmate Justin Stanley, who Lidell dubs “a great producer and great general dude,” and Robbie Lackritz is Lidell's front-of-house mixer, tour manager extraordinaire and engineer on Jim (Warp, 2008). And another pivotal co-conspirator in Lidell's process was witty Canadian experimental-popster-turned-Berlin-transplant Mocky. Best known for his work with Feist and previous work with Lidell, Mocky served as co-writer and co-producer on Lidell's current set.

“Mocky is very good at what he does,” Lidell says. “He's probably why people say this record sounds more focused. He's a lover of popular songs, a format that people can really understand.”

Lidell and Mocky have been colleagues since 2002, when Mocky heard Lidell's voice on a track by Taylor Savvy and decided they should work together; or, as Mocky puts it, “We were drawn together by a huge magnet hanging over Berlin that was blasting sonic rays at us.” This, er, musical magnetism translated to a mutual creative respect, which has proven its mettle through the sounds that they've created to date.

“Jamie is set apart from other musicians by the conflict between his amazing vocal skills and his technological futurism,” Mocky muses. “He's got a great sense of style and musical history.”


“The best thing about working with Jamie is that he's a completely open artist — anything goes,” Stanley adds. “He's an endless source of ideas.” Lidell and company tried out plenty of ideas on Jim, an album that brims with subtle experimentation inside and — literally — outside.

On “Rope of Sand,” the studio windows were left open to work real wind into the track. “I did want the wind,” Lidell enthuses, “but it got a little too noisy, so I went back and rolled various sounds off of the Korg MS-20 to add sculptured noise on top.” A cello was used to play a concert bass line, which they doubled with mandolin and guitar. “That was a magical sound,” Lidell says. “I love how songs fall into place once you find that one sound you were looking for.”

“I remember we recorded that one with Jamie singing out of the window, bouncing his vocal off the wall of the building next door,” Mocky adds. “The wind added such a haunting quality to the performance.”

This outdoorsy approach was also used on “Green Light.” “Jamie was playing the MaxiKorg through a talkbox,” Stanley explains, “and we left the doors and windows open on a few tracks to let the crickets sing along. We put a mic outside, and like clockwork they hook into the rhythm. I don't know if there's been a study on this, but it's crazy — if you have crickets around, you've gotta try it.”

Meanwhile, “Hurricane” — the first track Lidell recorded with Stanley on a whim on Halloween after wrapping a session with Beck — features a break that you'll want to rewind and hear again. Around 2:14 in the song, a wall of watery sounds and voices crashes in, the whole thing becomes 10 seconds of carnival, and then the song itself returns, shaking off the excess as if nothing remarkable had just happened.

“That song is quite interesting,” Lidell says. “At the break in the song, I initially had — well, absolutely nothing. I ended up recording 10 tracks of everyone randomly shouting and mixed that with the backing vocals and that big whooshing power noise that the MaxiKorg makes. Basically, I needed a crazy Muppet Show moment at that point, and I got it.”

Analog instruments formed the foundation track for “Figured Me Out,” even though the song sounds deceptively electronic. “I think it sounds loopy because of what we did with the EQ and the piano,” Lidell explains. “We made the piano — a rented upright — sound as brittle as possible by giving it a lot of compression and high-part filtering in the mix. Underneath that, the bass was done with Justin's old Roland guitar synth.”

And finally, on “Out of My System,” old-school took over again when Lidell hit a cymbal snag, resulting in yet another happy accident. “We'd already done some rhythm tracks for it in L.A., but once we got it to Berlin and I started trying to overdub crash cymbals, it just wasn't working,” Lidell remembers. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘Why has this gone to crap?'' So I pulled out my Telefunken M15 2-track machine — which is a lovely thing, by the way; the sound is like gold on a cloud — and recorded all the cymbals onto it instead. I kept it in mono, then rewound the tape and held it with my hand on its way back, letting it fluctuate a couple of milliseconds or so each way to make that old-school flange effect. I love doing that kind of thing. Pro Tools was over cowering in the corner.” [Laughs.]


Of course, experimenting is made even easier when you've got a studio full of great gear. Although Lidell says their basic setup was “nothing fancy, just your Mac G5 towers and Intel laptops, equipped with Pro Tools 7.4 and Logic 8,” Stanley took care of the rest of the gear details, of which there were plenty, leaving Lidell free to create.

In Los Angeles at Stanley's Stellasound studio, the project was centered around a 12-channel Neve Melbourne, with eight channels of Quad8 mic preamps and EQ and a custom 1975 24-channel OpAmp Labs console. For monitors, Stanley used vintage Braun speakers (“I found those at a garage sale; they sound great — dry, flat and in your face”) and a pair of Yamaha MSP10s. And Stellasound had plenty of instruments and mics to indulge just about any sound Lidell could think up.

“We used tons of classics, like a 1974 Fender Rhodes, a Wurlitzer A200 and a Hammond Tube Organ that sounds like a Mellotron,” Stanley says, “[as well as] vintage amps from Gibson, Ampeg and Fender, and guitars including a '74 Strat and a 1963 Gibson SG — plus ukuleles, zithers, trumpets, violins and an EMS Hi-Fli guitar pedal, the one that Pink Floyd used around the time of Dark Side of the Moon.”

“I ended up playing a lot of instruments on every track,” Mocky says, “and we were up a lot of late nights looking for the perfect arrangement choices, but we always got the reward we were searching for.”

A lot of those instrument lines were ready ahead of time, even if only Lidell himself knew what they were. “Jamie has a lot of it already in his head; the quickest way to get him to express it is to give him a mic and let him sing the ideas as they start flowing,” Stanley says. “He'll sing horn lines, string arrangements, bass lines, and then we'll go about re-creating them with the real instruments.”


The majority of rhythm tracks and songs were recorded in Los Angeles, but a few songs and vocals were tracked in Paris and Berlin, adding a cosmopolitan flair. In Paris, the renowned Studio Ferber was the place, with Renaud Letang taking care of tracking and mix duties on an old Neve console. In Berlin, recording was done at several locations. “We recorded at Clunk, which is run by Rashad Becker; in Mocky's room; and at my place,” Lidell says, “tracking vocals with my own Neumann M 269 and KMS 105 for the most part. But on some songs, Rashad said I wasn't singing ‘on axis,'' that I was moving my head all over the place. So on those, we used a Neumann stage mic instead.”

Back at Stellasound, Stanley leaned toward ribbon mics to capture Lidell's centerpiece vocals. “I prefer their warmth and the ability to use extreme EQs without the sound turning harsh,” he explains. It was another choice that found Lidell trusting Stanley and crew with the reins, and a choice that Lidell himself warmed up to.

“I was very conscious of the space of each song, especially for vocals,” Lidell says. “At the French sessions, we used Neumann M 49s, and I was in a booth for the vocals, which I don't particularly like. When I'd worked with Matthew Herbert, I'd noticed that I sing better without headphones. If I could do the vocals again, I'd do them in more of a gig setting with small monitors so I could move around with a cool mic. Another thing I've learned from recording this album was that I do like ribbon mics; I think they help make things sound more approachable.”

Lidell also learned a few lessons learned from an earlier collaborator: Beck. “Me and Mocky are a good team when it comes to writing melodies and songs, but Beck really writes fast, especially lyrics — he jots them down, and he's off. He's such a clever guy. Plus, he keeps things unprepared; he creates the right conditions and simply lets the magic happen. I like that.”

Fellow vocalists can learn a few things from Lidell, as well. “You do have to track vocals while you're rehearsing so everyone knows where things are at,” he says, “but if you track dummy vocals in the studio, you're going to have a tendency to chase after some moment that occurred when you were relaxed and unfocused, and you'll get stuck in a rut. That makes it more difficult to keep the vocal performance fresh. I say don't track the vocals at all until it's time for the vocal — I'm a big believer in that.”

Listening to Jim will make everyone a believer in Lidell's new approach. Good musical partnerships can be an elusive thing, but with the right team in place, it can take a project to the next level.

“I could play all the parts, but why?” Lidell ponders. “It's too much effort to sort it all, and it's a lot more fun to collaborate. Justin's a top gent — he even has a list of people he can call on. It's hard to know what to let go of sometimes, but me and Mocky decided not to track until we had things worked out. The big thing is intention; as long as you know where you're going and what you're doing in the studio, there's so much technology around today that whatever it is, you can make it happen. A lot of the joy of this record was in finding the right people to make it all work.”

Lidell's legendary one-man live show is also being shelved for now in favor of yet another experiment: He's bringing a full band on the road this time and will be touring for a good chunk of the summer. “I'm gonna give it a go,” he says. “I'm anxious not to make it sound too clean live, but as I've picked a bunch of mavericks to be in the band, I don't think it will. It's not like I picked a bunch of squares. That's the ultimate challenge, I think: If someone were to hit record on your live show and put it out the very next day, for you to be like, ‘Yeah, right, well, that sounds good then.''”


Computers, DAWs, recording hardware

Apple Power Mac G5 and Logic 8 software with Apogee AD-16X converters
Digidesign Pro Tools 7.4 software
Intel PC laptop
Telefunken M15 2-track machine


12-channel Neve Melbourne; the master section is also used for playback monitoring
Custom 1975 24-channel OpAmp Labs console
Eight channels of Quad8 mic pres and EQ

Samplers, drum machines

Akai MPC2000 with output mod for high gain
Native Instruments Kontakt soft sampler
Roland CR-78 drum machine

Keyboards, synths

1974 Fender Rhodes
1964 home-model Hammond A-143, vintage Hammond Tube Organ
Hohner Clavinet D6
Korg MaxiKorg 800dv
Roland SH-101
Wurlitzer A200
Old upright piano with tack mod


Cycling '74 Max/MSP software
McDSP plug-ins
Waves plug-ins


Istanbul cymbals
1970 Ludwig acoustic kit
1964 Premier kit
“One very loud” tambourine
Assortment of snares and percussion


Ampeg V4
Fender Bassman, Princeton Reverb
Gibson GA-40
Sears Silvertone


Danelectro Baritone guitar
Epiphone acoustic
Fender Mustang Bass, Precision Bass, 1974 Stratocaster guitar
1963 Gibson SG, 1964 Gibson ES-335 12-string
Maton acoustic
1964 Sears Silvertone Model 1457 with amp in case


AEA R84 ribbon
AKG D 12, D 224E, C 451
Josephson e22S condenser mic
Neumann KM 84, KMS 105 stage mic, M 49, M 269, U 47 fet
Reslo CR 2H ribbon mic
Royer R-121, R-122s phantom-powered ribbon mics
Shure SM7, SM57, SM58
Sony C-38
Soundelux U-99s
Box of lo-fi mics, including old reel-to-reel mics and '50s-'70s public-address mics

Mic preamps

Chandler Limited Germanium
Manley VoxBox
Universal Audio LA-610


(2) EMI EQs
Millennia Media NSEQ parametric EQ
Pultec EQ
Summit Audio EQ-200 parametric equalizer


(2) Empirical Labs Distressor EL8-X British Mod
Joemeek stereo compressor (prototype)
Universal Audio Teletronix LA-2A
Urei 1178 stereo limiter/compressor

Reverb units, tape delays

Korg SE-300 Stage Echo tape delay
Master Room spring reverb
Orban 111B spring reverb
Roland RE-201 Space Echo, RE-301 Space Echo tape delays
Ursa Major Space Station
Various spring reverbs, from Fender to Hammond


Braun speakers
Yamaha MSP10s


EMS Hi-Fli guitar pedal
Harmony ukulele
Trumpets, zithers, violin
Assortment of pedals