This Q&A is an online exclusive article from Remix.
So let's start with the beginning. How did all of you — Hesta Prynn (aka Julie Potash), Spero (aka Correne Spero), Sprout, Chuck Brody and the Beastie Boys' Adrock — decide to work together?
CHUCK BRODY: I used to work for Sony, and just by chance, I ended up engineering Northern State's last recording. They asked me to produce a few songs after that, so when they were looking to work on this album, we got back in contact.
HESTA PRYNN: We had heard Chuck's record with Shitake Monkey, and we were fans. We ended up writing a song with Chuck, and then Adrock ran into us and said, “Hey, we should do some songs.” It was an unfolding process. Both of them are just so great. And I don't even know where to start regarding how much Chuck is responsible for our sound now! Chuck Brody has really reinvented this band. I know he's helped me become a better songwriter. We'd already gotten the two rap records out of our system, so he helped us develop an entirely new sound. Both Chuck and Adrock really believe in us. Adrock, especially, wasn't doing it for the money — believe me. They both got into the vibe, and helped give a vision to our ideas. Chuck and I work on other stuff, too, we have a good collaborative process. It was superfun.
SPERO: Chuck is a great rock and hip-hop producer. His being equally comfortable in both genres really helped us, and his chops and production skills are amazing!
Chuck, did you work in tandem with Adrock, or did you each work on your own series of tracks?
CHUCK BRODY: We did work together. Adrock brought in a CD of tracks he'd put together, and the girls and I sat down and worked them out.
Did you have a certain approach to the new sound, or did it develop organically?
CHUCK BRODY: I wanted to bring them back more towards their first record, with more DIY, more experimenting. I also wanted to take them further with the guitar work. The girls also like the sound of Le Tigre, so we wanted to bring that, that and some punk rock, into it.
What facility and gear did you use?
CHUCK BRODY: We worked at my studio, The Fireplace [in New York City]. We primarily used Pro Tools|HD, and we did the guitars live. We used the Akai MPC4000 for the majority of the drums and programming, that and the Roland Juno-60, and the Casio CZ-1. For the West Coast Dr. Dre sound that we wanted, we dug out the old Minimoog. For their vocals, we used Shure SM7s, Neumann U 87s, AKG C 12s. And we did most of the mixing over at Sony Studios, with Dave Kutch, on their SSL 9000 console.
HESTA PRYNN: There are actually only live drums on one song, “Better Already” — we just did that to beef it up a bit. Chuck played a lot of the instruments, and of course we played, also. My favorite thing ever was the Juno-60. I wanted to put it on every song. It's such a dense instrument. I love the way it sounds. And I love the options. I still go over to Chuck's studio to use it all the time.
Did you have any other specific instruments or pieces of equipment that you really relied on?
SPERO: Chuck, especially, is very specific about microphones. And we do use Sennheiser wireless mics when we perform. But I use my SM57 at home, and I think it's just fine. I demo songs on my Mbox, and I have a Fender Telecaster that I like. But really, when we record, we're not too picky. We don't really care about brands or model numbers. We just care about our art, and we use whatever we need to use to get the sound that we want.
HESTA PRYNN: I know that Sprout played a Fender bass….
SPERO: And we love the Space Echo. We used that effect on lots of songs. (Laughter.)
Well, the overall sound of this album is obviously very different. Was there a process by which you all realized that you wanted to go in a different direction, or was that also something that just kind of unfolded on its own?
SPERO: Well, you know, bands generally go through cycles creatively. We'd all been playing more rock music in other bands, side projects, so we all kind of talked about it and thought, hmm, if we all went to sleep and woke up in the same dream, what would Northern State sound like now? We wanted to take what we were already doing and invert it. So we brought some of the other stuff we were doing into the studio. A few things came together when we started working with Chuck. And being finally free from Columbia, we felt free and even more excited about being independent. We felt like, let's just go out on a limb and do something different, with more singing, and more harmonies. We felt more joyful.
So I'm assuming Columbia wasn't a harmonious home for the band?
CHUCK BRODY: You know, their first album was pretty rough; they just kind of went in and did it. Their second album, with Columbia, was actually too big of a production, and the band wasn't able to be as involved as they should've been. So I think that they had the most time to experiment with this album, now that they are in a different situation. It's better. We took almost a year to record, but I definitely think it's their best record to date.
SPERO: Yeah…we had to basically go back to square one when we left Columbia. But we're better for it.
HESTA PRYNN: Columbia's very…decentralized. It was a bad match for us. Ipecac is awesome in that they trust us to run our own band. I think they're the best label in New York City. Just as an example, Sony and Columbia sent us a fancy flash drive pen for the holidays. One pen for all three of us. We were like, “Gee, thanks! Can we keep this pen?” Kind of like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, where she's in the bank signing for the million-dollar check, and she signs the wrong name, and she says, “Well, I'm going to take the money — and can I keep this pen?”
And voila, album title?
HESTA PRYNN: Yes! We couldn't decide what to call it initially — I wanted to call it The Joy Luck Club. That one still cracks me up, but Can We Keep This Pen? just fell into place. The name of the album is also kind of a metaphor, in a way — like, can we have permission to make this album?
Exactly how much did the label departure affect the recording of the album? Did you expect it to take as long as it did?
HESTA PRYNN: The album took so long because we wrote most of it in the studio! I've never seen people make a record like we did. Working in the studio while you're writing, if you get an idea, you can try it out immediately, you know, just hit record and see what happens. Throw it up in the air and see if it sticks. It was a luxury. The only downfall was that we made it [the album] before we had a label, so at some point we had to come out of our little paradise and figure out what to do next.
Does each of you have certain roles when you record?
SPERO: Well, all three of us play instruments, but Sprout is probably the best multi-instrumentalist, Julie's best at the keyboards, and I play guitar and a little drums.
HESTA PRYNN: I think overall, too, we're taking ourselves less seriously. and I feel that we just wrote the best record of our lives. I'm very, very proud because I know it's a good album, and we each had our own part in that.
Chuck, what do you feel each person's strengths are?
CHUCK BRODY: Julie is a great songwriter; she has a lot of great hooks. She and I sat down and did song structures and choruses. Sprout has a very structured, very interesting writing style. And Spero's got a very strong, gritty voice. I like to bring that into the songs.
So did those same roles translate over when you decided to sing on this album?
SPERO: Julie's great singing in the studio. Sprout is especially great at holding down the low parts. I love singing live — I have no fear — but I get so nervous in the studio! Was the singing intimidating for any of you, since it was a first for this band?
SPERO: Well, I've been writing for years and I've sung for years, you know, playing guitar and singing songs. So it's not like I'm uncomfortable, really. We've all done different levels of singing — just not in this band — but we do have side project bands. So we each have our own niches. Sprout and I are actually in a six-girl band called Lucky Bitch, and Julie is in a band called Lucy. I think it's all about confidence. Chuck is also a great vocal coach, and he has a great falsetto! I'm like, “Why can you sing my girly high part better than me?!”
CHUCK BRODY: We just took our time in working out the singing. Hesta had another band on the side that she sang with, and Spero and Sprout are both experienced at singing as well. We wanted to do more singing than rapping — their old records were all rapping, rapping, rapping, and we all really wanted to break that up.
HESTA PRYNN: I just hope people don't say, “What are they trying to do?” (Laughter.) I think the only reaction you're going to get is a positive one, especially regarding songs like “Good Distance” and “Away Away. “
HESTA PRYNN: Thank you so much!
So let's delve a little further into some of these songs. I know that “Away Away” is being called “Northern State's first love song?”
HESTA PRYNN: It's about all of our ex-boyfriends, really. You know the line that goes “things all over the place?” That actually happened during a breakup of mine — you know, when you go over to pick up your belongings, and you're collecting them from drawers and other places. It was such a hard thing to see those things not in the drawers and not on the shelves any more. Over the past 3-4 years, we've all gone through breakups. We're all in new long-term relationships now — which is great — but I could just so remember how that time felt.
And “Oooh Girl?”
HESTA PRYNN: Heh. Well, we are all fans of those shows, those reality shows — Adrock actually watches Project Runway with us — and “Oooh, Girl,” is inspired by that show and America's Next Top Model. You know, all the wannabe models going, “oooh, girrrl!” And Heidi Klum going, “Auf wiedersehen! You're out!”
How about “Cold War?”
SPERO: Well, at the age we're at, our generation, I think that people are supposed to start settling down into relationships, getting married, buying houses. We, meaning we in Northern State, are the anomaly as we're not really doing that, but you definitely think about it. I remember reading this thing about how the Cold War predicted the Baby Boom — it's a natural human reaction to wartime to pair off and nest and try to create a secure little life. As I was reading, I felt a lot of parallels to the time we're living in now. The world is going haywire with global warming and other things, and I think people feel scared. So there's a tendency in people to ignore it and try to live a normal life, trying to get a balance between a normal life and apathy. I feel like our generation, across the board, isn't dealing as well as we could be, or really helping out. I feel that for me, and for others of our generation, we need an assessment of the situation and a call to action. The song isn't a criticism. I hope it just speaks to the frustration that a lot of us feel, like, what can we do? How can we be most hopeful in this time that feels so hopeless? John and Yoko said, “War is over if you want it,” and we could reuse that slogan…but we're not.
Is “Cowboy Man” a similar commentary?
SPERO: Yes, it ties in to the same thing. “Cowboy Man” is our ode to Dubya. You know, the thought process being that, well, the leader of the free world is a fool, so if it could be someone like him, then why not me? It's a little more lighthearted than the attacks I know he gets all the time, though. I wanted this to be a more subtle critique of our President, with humor.
HESTA PRYNN: “Cowboy Man” was inspired by our President and that whole rogue cowboy mentality that we've got going on in the government right now; that's not helping us so much. I think that the wealthy people of our country are living in a bubble, so far removed from what's actually happening, and the people running our country are the wealthy people, so it sucks, and it's scary all the way around. Being wealthy is such a foreign thing to me and, really, to the majority of people in this country, so it's not fair that the wealthy are the ones running America.
And… on a lighter note… is “The Three Amigas” inspired by the Martin Short film?
HESTA PRYNN: Heh! No! But “Three Amigas” is the funniest thing we've ever done, I think. I was watching a lot of that TV show, Deadwood, and I kind of got obsessed with it. Sprout loves horses. So we kind of got in the spirit of that whole Western thing and ran with it.
Do you each have a favorite song on the album?
HESTA PRYNN: “Away Away” is a special song to me. I love “Mother May I?” I like “Fall Apart,” I love “Oooh Girl.”
SPERO: “Mic Tester” makes me happy whenever I hear it — I like how it's so succinct with the verses and no chorus, and it wraps up well. I also love “Better Already.” It's such a great singalong, and it's also really an autobiographical song about our friendship. I'm proud of us whenever I hear it.
CHUCK BRODY: “iluvitwhenya” turned out well. I had a folder on my hard drive with a bunch of electro loops, so we played around with those and then had Kaki King come in and play slide guitar.
SPERO: “Things I'll Do” ended up especially cool, too. I put the beat together on a sampler with Nik at Nite. I'd record a line, we'd bounce it to a CD-R, he'd add scratches on a CDj, and then we'd take it to the studio to add keys and guitars.
So what's up next for all of you? Chuck, I know your album with Shitake Monkey hit stores in April, how's that going?
CHUCK BRODY: It's going well; it's a producer's record, for sure. I'm going to be touring with the girls in Scandinavia, and I'm also producing some stuff for American Princes.
SPERO: Well, yesterday, we finished the video for “Better Already.” I can't wait to see it — we acted! And we're riding imaginary unicorns and wearing tinfoil helmets, so I hope it's going to be funny. We're going to Scandinavia, and then we're doing more shows throughout the summer until fall, when we're doing a Canadian tour and then a full U.S. tour.