Photo: Greg Funnell
"Freezing cold and hunched over," Cougar bass player Todd Hill says jokingly when asked if the band's new album has any sort of theme. Hill's tracks for Patriot, the instrumental post-rock band's sophomore set, were recorded primarily in drummer David Henzie-Skogen's "small, low (and presumably cold) limestone basement," as were the drums. But the other instruments were figured out piece by piece in different locales until the band finally got together to solidify the final product. "It was a new experience for us, creating something out of the ether, in separate cities, and e-mailing our ideas back and forth," Henzie-Skogen says.
Instruments were tracked in that basement using a Digi002 rack with Pro Tools on a Mac Pro, and a purposefully limited selection of mics—"the only mics we used were [Shure] SM57s, [Audio-Technica] AT4033s and RODE NT5s; we keep it cheap," Henzie-Skogen points out. Henzie-Skogen was on primary production duties ("though by no means 'The Producer,'" he says) and also did most of the editing. Bass was re-amped at Smart Studios, as were some of Trent Johnson and Dan Venne's guitars. "I went DI into my Apogee Duet at home, and then took it to Smaart," Venne explains, "which allowed me to do a million takes of the parts without wasting everyone's time." And the entire thing was mixed at Smart with Beau Sorenson after plenty of band experimenting was out of their collective system.
"Foil Épée Sabre" features a diametrically different banjo sound than what might be expected. This modern take on the instrument was achieved by splitting two SM57-miked banjos played by Aaron Sleator into stereo. On "Absaroka," Venne's guitar was put through a vintage AKG spring reverb "to give it that real Loretta Lynn quality," Henzie-Skogen says; and the French horn, bass clarinet, euphonium and flute were mixed to tape "to give them an even warmer and more organic sound," according to Venne.
That earthy approach continued on "Rhinelander." "The drum sounds are all very organic on that song," Henzie-Skogen says. "I used a couple of metal djembe rattles to double the hi-hat sound throughout. The short paper-ripping snare sound was simply wire brushes on a pandeiro; there's no processing on it. It ended up having a nice gritty texture." The album's sound took a more ambient turn on "Pelourinho." "The original harp part was composed by Dan and played by our friend Sinead Nic Gearailt," Henzie-Skogen explains. "That song is a combination of a few different things: the harp; three sound-exploration-type guitar parts; some constructed beats that sound like Mbalax (Senegalese music); and some vaguely sitar or kora-sounding cigar box guitar."
But perhaps the most drastic experiment was in Cougar finally adding a vocal to one of their songs. "This was really new to us, so there was a fair amount of anxiety and rumination," Trent Johnson says. Singer Paul Smith was sent the track, sent back a vocal, and then it was up to the band to cut and paste. "I took his vocals and messed around with the arrangement, the placement of words and the harmony, and did some serious edits," Henzie-Skogen says. "It was easy to find a place for the vocal. This track sounded, for the first time in our history, like it needed a vocal."
That's not to say Cougar's going to suddenly become a band with a lead singer, though. Or any singer, for that matter. "Our purpose in making Patriot, as with Law, was to make modern instrumental music that is every bit as lyrical, dynamic and profound as music with vocals," Johnson says. "That is the organizing principle of the band."