After a restless night on the red-eye following a festival performance in Novi Sad, Serbia, the boys and girl of Scissor Sisters are bushed, but beaming. Assembling at a Manhattan photography studio the next morning to preen and strut their star-worthy stuff for a photo shoot, Scissor Sisters vocalist Jake Shears (Jason Sellards) and bassist/keyboardist Babydaddy (Scott Hoffman) found time to ponder the wonders of cover-star success.
“I love Remix! I read it for the nerdy bits,” Shears exclaims, while Babydaddy realizes that his subscription has lapsed. Scissor Sisters may be globetrotters, but they apparently still enjoy keeping up with the latest in music and gear.
Since their 2004 debut achieved multiplatinum status in England and such fans as Elton John clamored to write songs for the gender- and genre-defying band, Scissor Sisters have enjoyed a whirlwind of exposure and acclaim. Shears used his fingers to explain the meaning of the Scissor Sisters' moniker on Live With Regis and Kelly; while late-night TV shows from Conan O'Brien to SNL rolled out the gold lamé carpet for the budding showbiz personalities. But with all the fuss and focus on the band's garish videos and feather boa fascinations, does their expertly crafted music ultimately get lost in the mix?
“We are about the songs more than anything,” Shears proclaims, lounging in a ripped T-shirt. “The style is superfluous. We represent what we are doing with music through the style. But we don't think about the style until the music is done. I am sure our style turns some people off and overshadows the music in some ways. But we would do it this way even if we were shooting ourselves in the foot. It is what we like. It's who we are.”
“A lot of bands,” Babydaddy adds, “think that to gain respect for what they are doing, they are not allowed to wear flashy clothes. You have to wear a flannel shirt and jeans to prove that you are sincere.”
“We are a beast of our own creation,” Shears decides. “We have created it all ourselves, so I don't really care what people think. It is 100-percent us, and every detail has been looked over by people who want to make something larger than life.”
That goal was certainly achieved on Scissor Sisters' roaring follow-up, Ta-Dah (Universal/Motown, 2006). Where the group's self-titled 2004 debut offered gems like the dreamy Elton-meets — George Michael ballad, “Mary,” the sassy “Tits on the Radio,” further Elton mischief in “Take Your Mama” and even a glittering disco-ball version of Pink Floyd's “Comfortably Numb,” Ta-Dah finds Scissor Sisters revving up their music to new rpm's.
Ta-Dah broadens the band's already spacious palette, referencing Prince and Paul McCartney, among others, within an arsenal of glam, rock, funk, disco, vaudeville and '70s-styled balladic epics. While Elton John co-wrote the bump-a-licious rocker “I Don't Feel Like Dancin',” other standout tracks include “Other Side” (featuring a ghostly Judy Garland sample from the great beyond), the amped up Bee Gees allure of “Ooh” and raving Stones-styled rocker, “Everybody Wants the Same Thing.” Reflecting the white-heat lifestyle of the jet-setting rock-and-roll star, Ta-Dah sounds like a dazzling 30-city tour compressed into a 54-minute, 40-second digital/analog funhouse.
At their core, Scissor Sisters, which also includes vocalist Ana Matronic (Ana Lynch), guitarist Del Marquis (Derek Gruen) and drummer Paddy Boom (Patrick Secore), are expert songwriters, musicians and programmers, accomplishing in their Discoball Jazzfest studios what used to require an outboard-heavy, multiroom recording complex. Scissors Sisters' music recalls the versatile sounds of the '70s and its mighty musical craftsmanship, reflected in Shears' stratospheric falsetto vocals (and hilarious lyrics such as, “This will be the last time I ever do your hair”), myriad instrumental solos and a surprisingly mature band aesthetic.
CURSING MOM'S EYEBALLS
With a bigger budget and the dreaded sophomore slump hovering, you'd think Scissor Sisters would've spared no expense when recording Ta-Dah, but Babydaddy insists the sessions varied little from that of the band's debut. Joined by engineer Dan Grech-Marguerat (Radiohead, Bryan Ferry), Scissor Sisters recorded the bulk of Ta-Dah at the band's Discoball Jazzfest studios in Babydaddy's Chelsea neighborhood.
“This album process was even simpler than the last one,” Babydaddy says, “just because we used more software synths and less outboard gear. We had two computers running, but the G5 with Logic Pro 7 was the main tool, along with a tiny 16-channel Soundcraft Spirit FX16 board, just to bring stuff in and for monitoring. We kept most everything inside the computer until we mixed, with Dan running everything through a big Neve VR board.”
Some of New York City's largest professional recording venues (relics of an older era when home studios were as rare as three-album contracts) have gone out of business as of late, but two of its most illustrious studios — Sear Sound and the facilities in the former Masonic Hall known as the Manhattan Center — continue to attract the analog faithful.
“The main difference is that we mixed Ta-Dah through the Neve analog desk at Manhattan Center,” Shears explains. “We mixed the first album in Logic. Why did we do that? Cause we were out of our fucking minds! We didn't know what we were doing. We didn't mix Ta-Dah; we sort of backseat drove it with Dan Grech at the helm.”“I remember the first album,” Babydaddy recalls, “with a clump of my hair in my hand, swearing on my mom's eyeballs that I would never mix an album that way again. It was a maddening process. It was us and our manager just belting it out.”
“But what gets me really excited about this album — and perhaps it's better or worse sounding, depending on your perspective — is that Ta-Dah sounds much fuller and more exciting,” Shears continues. “We have become better producers.”
Shears and Babydaddy consistently use the word “hybrid” to describe their approach to writing and recording. Their drum tracks are hybrids of samples and live tracks. The guitar-saxophone-keyboard-banjo solos, which pepper the album throughout, are hybrids of live performances, samples and effects. And their songwriting is a hybrid of round-the-piano sing-a-longs (as with Elton John in Vegas) and one-on-one programming sessions with an Access Virus keyboard and Native Instruments Battery rhythms.
“To me, there is nothing better than hearing live drums completely quantized,” Babydaddy says. “That is the perfect hybrid of the past and the present. I don't do it all the time, but that is an exciting element of what you can do with modern tools. And, you know, people get bored with the same sounds. They know fake sounds when they hear them. I don't have a problem with fake sounds, but we like to hear a combination of different things. I like the idea of not knowing if what you are hearing is real or fake. I like trickery and using a tool like Logic to make it sound like we are in a big studio.”
BEATS, BASS AND FIRST TAKES
With a rock star's duties never done, Shears departs for yet another photo shoot, leaving the work of production elucidation to Babydaddy, who is the Scissor Sisters' hardcore gear head. His willingness to explain his various working methods via particular hardware and software pieces reveals much of the Scissor Sisters' recording ethos. Though Ta-Dah sounds largely like a live recording, it is a real hybrid, achieved through sharp individual performances (not the least Babydaddy's wiry bass playing) and tons of synth/software manipulation.
“Access Virus — the new TI model with USB connection that runs straight into Logic without audio cables — is the main workhorse keyboard,” Babydaddy says. “You plug in the USB, and it comes out of a channel in Logic, and you can add effects directly onto it without having to record the audio in and then play it back with effects. Otherwise, you are sending MIDI every time. It is really good. Live, our keyboard player uses a Korg MS2000 and a Triton Extreme. And we used a little MS2000, Juno 106, Andromeda A6 and Roland XV-5080, but everything is moving in the direction of software. I use Arturia Analog Factory stuff all over the album. They have a few emulators that are incredible, like the Moog Minimoog V and Moog Modular V, Yamaha CS-80V and ARP 2600 V. It is really well constructed.”
Native Instruments Battery is Babydaddy's sampler/beat machine of choice (“It is the most intuitive interface because all the samples are laid out in front of you on a grid system,” he says) along with Logic's EXS24mkII sampler. Logic's Ultrabeat is also responsible for Ta-Dah's beats, often in combination with samples and live performances from Paddy Boom, such as the boing-boing Pollard Syndrum fills of “I Don't Feel Like Dancin.'”
“Those were Paddy's fills from a live performance, and we pulled them out and duplicated them in Logic Ultrabeat,” Babydaddy explains. “The idea came from a live performance and was then re-created as a synth moment. I just sat down and copied what he was doing, note by note. The drum sounds that people loved on the first album were the fake ones. You can get that real drum sound easier with samples. Often it was about mixing and matching and taking Paddy's fills from live drums and throwing them in. The other way around, sometimes the more electronic-sounding songs have live drums doubled right over the sampled drums. Whatever works. The guitar solo and playing you can't really fake. And there is a lot of actual bass. [“Too much actual bass!” Shears declared earlier.] And I also doubled my bass with the Virus.”
For Shears' vocals, which are, on some tracks, layered practically into infinity, Babydaddy relies primarily on one mic, the Neumann M 149, through the Avalon Design Vt-737sp. An HHB Radius 20 tube pre, Universal Audio 6176, Urei 1176m and Focusrite Liquid Channel are also used.
“We used the Focusrite on drums to get some really interesting sounds,” Babydaddy says. “I get scared of overdoing things. If you want something well compressed and gritty, do it afterwards, not on the input. Make sure your channel is clean; the Avalon gives that clean but warm sound. We also used a lot of the old analog gear at Sear Sound for the drum sound.”
Ta-Dah is so total in its mastery of production details, from the Roxy Music chillness of “The Other Side” and the Bee Gees falsettos of “I Don't Feel Like Dancin'” to the album's plethora of guitar and saxophone solos, you have to wonder: What comes first, the songs or the production?
“We don't think as simple as, ‘Let's make it sound like Elton John,’” Babydaddy insists. “Sometimes, it's a cool guitar sound, then we build on that. Often the first inspiration is really hard to shake. Sometimes we come back and decide things can be better. But the first vocals are always the best, first guitar takes are best, there is no separation between production and writing.”
Oddly enough, when it comes to mixdown, Grech-Marguerat begs to differ. “Different songs had different influences,” he explains, “like a Roxy Music or Bowie track for one, Elton John and a lot of '70s dance stuff. For each song, I would have those tracks in mind. When you are producing or mixing, it is good to not think of it as a whole album to begin with. It is good to have an individual sound on each song. When you put a bunch of tracks together at the end of that, it will still make sense, but from a sonic brew, I would treat one song as a '70s dance track, another as an Elton song. I would think of the older sonics but also of contemporary records.”
ROCKET MAN/WIZARD WOMAN
When it came to working with Elton John up-close and personal, Shears and Babydaddy hit Las Vegas, notebook in hand, and joined their UK idol onstage. Surely the town that invented gold and glamour was the perfect locale for such a triumvirate?
“That was a real thrill,” Babydaddy recalls. “Elton had never worked in the same room with someone else before. This was his first time working directly with another artist. We went to Vegas where he was doing a show. We got onstage with him, set up a computer and keyboards during the day and just played around. He played chords, and we said what we liked or not, and we wrote the songs together. We had barebones of songs and brought them back to New York.”
Elton may have co-written “Intermission” and “I Don't Feel Like Dancin,” but the ghost of the ultimate diva and tragic outsider, Judy Garland, makes a virtual appearance on “Other Side.” A chilling song that matches the detached etherealness of Roxy Music with a ton of delays and a technically perverse guitar solo, it is this album's “Mary.”
“That begins with an ambient intro,” Babydaddy says. “Those elements were already in the song; we just made loops from guitar, and I put a wash of reverb and delays around them. Some of that is actual reverse reverb from the vocals. I like altering sounds that are already in the song. And I love a big bright reverb; I like hearing that wash, the George Michael explosion of reverb over the vocals with a lot of delays. You can get so much out of reverb and delay to provide mood. The Platinum Verb in Logic is one of the strongest tools to use on vocals and some of the other elements to get that ambience.
“We did about 15 takes on that guitar solo, chopping it up in Logic and turning it into its own melody,” Babydaddy continues. “Then the saxophonist learned the programmed guitar solo and doubled it. Other than that, the most interesting thing about the song might be the Judy Garland sample. That is from some strange unreleased tape she made talking into an old reel-to-reel. She was drunk and rambling for two hours. [At one point, Garland says in what sounds like a drugged voice, “There will be no ‘over the rainbow’ for me”.] The tape was bootlegged, and we really did our best to get those bootleg tapes cleared. It was almost shut down by her estate; they wanted the bootlegs off the market. The estate claimed the tapes had been slowed down. But it is a touching moment — and completely spooky. That someone would say those words into a microphone is one of the saddest things. It is disembodied but completely honest.”
Ultimately, the Scissor Sisters are themselves outsiders, too far out for the American mainstream, too rampantly melodic and even musically conventional to be widely accepted by a U.S. public that typically shuns even the most perfect pop in favor of more commercial, mass-market product. That makes Scissor Sisters an underground band worth watching for years to come, as they continue to cut up sounds with their sharp creative and technical prowess.
“We are a problem-solving project trying to make things sound good,” Shears says, by way of describing their production goals. “We can also sometimes be our own biggest enemy, but we like to challenge ourselves to create something strong. Scissor Sisters is our personality — it is the character of this band as much as anything.”
DISCOBALL JAZZFEST STUDIOS
Apple Power Mac Quad G5 running Logic Pro 7
MOTU 828mkII interface
Soundcraft Spirit FX16 board
Samplers/drum synths, turntable
Apple Logic Pro EXS24mkII sampler, Ultrabeat drum synth
Native Instruments Battery
Technics SL1200 turntable
Arturia Analog Factory soft synth (including Arturia sounds from the Yamaha CS-80V, Moog Minimoog V, Moog Modular V, ARP 2600 V)
GMedia M-Tron, Minimonsta: Melohman soft synths
Korg Legacy Collection soft synths
Native Instruments Komplete soft synths
PSP VintageWarmer, Nitro plug-ins
Synths, modules, instruments
Access Virus Indigo, TI Pølar synths
Alesis Andromeda A6 synth
Fender Jazz bass
1975 Gibson ES-335 guitar
Gretsch Silver Jet guitar
Korg MS2000, Triton Extreme synths
Roland Juno-106 synth, XV-5080 sound module
Tannoy Reveal 6s
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Avalon Design Vt-737sp preamp/compressor/EQ
Focusrite Liquid Channel preamp/compressor/EQ
Line 6 POD amp modeler
HHB Radius 20 tube EQ
Neumann M 149, TLM 103 mics
Universal Audio 6176 Channel Strip
THE DETAILS TO TA-DAH
Engineer and mixdown guru Dan Grech-Marguerat has worked with Radiohead (Amnesiac), Paul McCartney (Chaos and Creation), Travis and Beck (Guero), his analog expertise making him a natural for Ta-Dah. Speaking from RAK studios in London, Grech outlined his Scissor Sisters approach.
“The first Scissor Sisters album is very electronic and quite simple in terms of the number of tracks; this record has a lot more going on with more live instruments, and they wanted a warmer sound,” Grech-Marguerat says. “That is why I mixed the album on the Neve VR Flying Faders desk; it is warmer and more analog sounding than SSLs. I tried to add warmth to what was already there. I mixed at Manhattan Center's Studio 7, using my AE1 speakers, Urei 1176 blackface compressors, AMS reverb and AKG spring reverb mixed to Pro Tools at 96 kHz. There is a lot of reverb on those older Elton John and Roxy Music records, and that is what Jason and Scott were going for. It was more about the style of the music than me wanting to chuck a lot of reverb on. I ran bass EQ through the Neve, and for compression I like the Empirical Labs EL8X Distressor Compressors; their attack and release are really diverse, and they have good harmonic overtones.
“Because we used a lot of live instruments, we recorded at Sear Sound; they have a great collection of old mics and great live rooms. Scott recorded the basics at Discoball Jazzfest, but the other instruments, about 20 percent, we did at Sear. It was good to get that warm sound with tube mics and classic gear.
“Ultimately, you know you are finished mixing when it feels good. You can overmix and spend hours doing small things, and you can go too far. When I think that something is feeling good, I get the band in and see what ideas they have. It is important to take a break. I used to sit in studios until 5 in the morning, and then you can't hear anything. At midnight, I like to stop — you can lose perspective if you work too late and too long. The quicker you can mix, the more excited and fresh you will be about it.”