Photo: Alejandro Ros
It's not over 'til it's over — so goes the recording philosophy of former Death From Above 1979 singer/drummer Sebastien Grainger, whose Sebastien Grainger & The Mountains album is his first full-length solo effort since his stint as one half of the hard-driving, dance-punking band he once shared with MSTRKRFT's Jesse Keeler.
“I feel like writing and recording are so entwined that a song isn't fully composed until it's totally mixed,” Grainger says, “and I like to work alone to get the song to a point where I can ask for help or advice; if I present a song to someone else too early, I feel my original vision is distorted.”
When it is advice time, Grainger relies on bass player Nick Sewell and studio colleague Jimmy Shaw (of Metric). Grainger and Shaw founded Giant Studio in Toronto, where they made a silk purse out of a sow's ear. “We built Giant in a warehouse that was used as a machine shop and had deteriorated into a slum,” Grainger explains. “The name was based on how huge the space was when we first saw it. Of course it got smaller once we built the studio, but the name remains as a symbol of our ambition.”
Equipped with a Trident 80C console and “a bunch” of vintage mic preamps and compressors that the pair feed into an Apple Mac Pro G5 tower running Digidesign Pro Tools|HD, it was Grainger's first experience behind a pro board. “The process was as much about composing and creativity as it was about troubleshooting and compensating for my rudimentary knowledge,” he says.
Sessions for Grainger's album began in summer 2007, with Shaw as engineer/producer. But after tracking several songs at Giant, the results weren't meshing with what was in Grainger's head, so the first set of sessions was scrapped.
“It took me a while to figure out that this was a solo record,” Grainger says. “My original intention was to record as a three-piece band (Andrew Scott on synths/guitars, Sewell on bass and Leon Taheny on drums), then do overdubs with outside musicians. But I realized that in order to achieve my sound, I needed to work alone up to a certain point.”
Grainger decided to accelerate the process by booking studio time at Mountain City in Montreal, with Adrian Popovich and Joseph Donovan engineering. Grainger took those sessions home for Pro Tools editing, and he also left Montreal with a whole new bag o' tricks — one being Popovich's idea of using the WaveMachine Labs Drumagog plug-in.
“It's a live drum sound-replacer,” Grainger explains. “I used to enhance drum recordings by manually adding electronic drum samples slightly buried underneath the kick and snare. With Drumagog, I was able to switch samples live to get the effect I wanted without hours of hand-placing samples or over-quantizing drum performances.”
He also found a solution via Popovich and Donovan for capturing Sewell's unique but tricky live bass tone. “We learned to run the bass into a UA 6176 [channel strip] and treat it as a pre-effected DI. Then we'd duplicate the bass track and effect separately with two [Native Instruments] Guitar Rig plug-ins — one a superlow frequency, the other a superdistorted overdrive/stereo emulator.”
With these renewed approaches, the rest of the record was ultimately recorded and mixed at Giant. Guitars were split into two channels, “one run through an old '50s Fender Tremolux my dad bought at a garage sale for $25 when I was a kid, and the other a Vox Berkeley II; I'd close-mic with a Sennheiser 609 or Shure SM57 and far-mic with a vintage tube.”
Sebastien Grainger & The Mountains (Saddle Creek, 2008) is full of big rock chords and soaring, melodic choruses — “Love Can Be So Mean” features '80s guitars and plenty of tambourines; “I'm All Rage” is highlighted by a “Frankenstein's monster” mix of gear and plug-ins, including Grainger's pick of the free iZotope Vinyl plug-in for vocal distortion; and standout track “American Names” is enhanced by the Propellerhead Reason Abbey Road Keyboards ReFill emulating a Mellotron flute.
Vocals got the royal treatment, too — “vocals were recorded with a Peluso 22 47-style mic,” Grainger says, “run through a vintage Neve pre, then into an Empirical Labs Distressor compressor or [Universal Audio] Teletronix LA-3A. For delay/slapback, I edited a SoundToys EchoBoy preset. I should mention that I was listening to John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band quite a bit at the time,” Grainger says. [Laughs.]
For Grainger, the vocal performances serve as the centerpiece of the album, and there'll be no trickery in that department, thank you very much.
“There is absolutely no electronic harmonizing or manipulation of vocals, with the exception of a vocoder part on ‘Renegade Silence,’” he says emphatically. “My voice is the soul of this record. If I can't sing it, I don't want people to hear it.”