Snow Patrol (left to right)—Nathan Connolly, Paul Wilson, Gary Lightbody, Jonny Quinn, and Tom Simpson.
When scotch-irish superstars Snow Patrol envisioned their next mega-selling opus, where did they look for inspiration? To the Far East? To the near west? The group''s anthemic rock owes its power to Gary Lightbody''s honeyed vocals and the group''s epic, textured palette approach which leaves room for fans to find their own sonic interpretation. But at the heart of their latest album, Fallen Empires, it turns out that Snow Patrol are fans, just like everyone else.
“Gary loved Arcade Fire''s The Suburbs,” bassist Paul “Pablo” Wilson says. “It''s a complete art album, a total concept album. We went for the same idea. We recorded 25 songs, narrowed them down to 12 and they all fit really well. We wanted Fallen Empires to be great from start to finish, a record that can be listened to as a journey. It''s a cliché, but we really tried to do that. It''s a journey because there is so much variation on the album.”
Eschewing the gloom and familiarity of their native UK, Snow Patrol descended on Joshua Tree National Park in the California desert in October of 2010, and with two guitars and a handful of rough song ideas entered Rancho De La Luna Studios (home of Queens of the Stone Age, among others) to record foundational tracks. That was only the beginning, and in some ways, the easy part.
After a few weeks in the heat, Snow Patrol—including Lightbody and Wilson, guitarist Nathan Connolly, drummer Jonny Quinn, and keyboardist Tom Simpson—headed to Santa Monica and took over (and totally retrofitted) Eagle''s Watch, an upscale ranch house in Malibu with ginormous windows and panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. With longtime Snow Patrol producer Garrett “Jacknife” Lee and engineer Sam Bell guiding the proceedings, the sessions expanded to include the LA Inner City Mass Gospel Choir of Compton, R.E.M.''s Michael Stipe, vocalist Lissie Trullie, and Queens Of The Stone Age guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen. Orchestral overdubs were tracked at Threshold Sound + Vision, mixdown and vocal overdubs at Ocean Way and Lee''s Topanga Canyon “hacienda,” a former hippy commune and prior home of Neil Young and Woody Guthrie.
“We wanted to make a massively ambitious record,” says Lightbody. “Arcade Fire''s last record made us realize that we had to up our game.” But before digging into that ambition, Snow Patrol had to remember who they were.
“We went to Rancho De La Luna to learn how to play as a band again,” Wilson recalls. “Gary already had a lot of ideas together but we had to figure out if a particular song worked best fast or slow, as a rock song, a waltz—songs can start any way, it''s just choosing which feel really suits. Then at this beautiful house in Santa Monica we did most of the recording on a Neve [50 Series] desk and Apple Logic. We''ll never record in a regular studio again! Proper studios are horrible, and so expensive.”
Gary Lightbody listens to a mix.
Once Snow Patrol got their groove back, they focused on Lightbody''s songs. Creating basic arrangements in Logic, Snow Patrol added or subtracted as ideas fell into place using Elektron MachineDrum, and Native Instruments Battery and Guitar Rig.
“We don''t arrange songs beforehand; we do that on the computer,” Wilson says. “That way we know what works as we put the whole thing together. We start with guitars and soft synths. But on the record it''s all hardware synths. Often the drums are programmed then we redo them live, and a lot of the rhythm guitars we cut up in Logic. But the lead guitar parts can change.”
Fallen Empires'' 12 tracks explode like fireworks, incorporating all the hit-making machinery of a well-oiled pop powerhouse. “Fallen Empires” grooves with bubbling, Depeche Mode-worthy synths at a breakneck 170 bpm pulse. “In the End” soars with arms-outstretched vocals and a galvanic dance groove; “New York” virtually mashes Sarah McLachlan and U2 in a sentimental twilight reverie; “Called Out in the Dark” features a buzzing, Cake-like guitar riff, skulking dance beat, and Lightbody''s sensitive, man-boy vocals. Throughout, Fallen Empires balances Lightbody''s natural, present-sounding vocals against a glossy production sheen, from robo-tinged drums and a choir of swelling synths to guitars of every The Edge-worthy stripe. That sweet/salty dichotomy gives the album a quixotic punch that its ear-candy songs only amplify.
“We actually tried to make Fallen Empires sound less produced,” Wilson says. “All the guitars are single-tracked. There''s no multitracking, and all the synths are played live. It doesn''t have that synchronized feel to it. A lot of drumming is real, most of it. There are a couple of kick drum and snare drum samples triggered with the real drums.
“Gary''s voice is easy to record, to be honest,” Wilson continues. “There''s no magic. We put up any microphone that''s lying around, maybe an [Shure] SM58 in the live room. If it''s a softer, quieter song, we''ll go for one of the really nice microphones in a secluded area. But most of the time it''s whatever''s around.”
“Gary''s vocals are so recognizable that we didn''t want to alter them,” Bell adds. “We used an [AKG] C12, a [Neumann] U47, [a Shure] SM7, and one of the newer-model [AKG] 414s. And it would have been a Neve board mic pre or a [Neve] 1073 or [Urei] 1176. Gary''s voice is naturally great, but we did EQ in post. I like to keep recording singers simple and quick. A mic pre and a compressor to level things out. Then we''ll do a little reverb after that.
“The house in Malibu was mad,” Bell continues. He and “Jacknife” Lee have recorded R.E.M, Bloc Party, The Editors, Weezer, and all the Snow Patrol albums. “The house had multiple bedrooms and bathrooms with marble and tiled walls and ceilings. We had to build acoustic baffles and panels, and we wired the whole place out. It was quite an undertaking. But the surfaces gave us lots of interesting-sounding spaces we could drop the drums into with two mics. Same with guitar amps. We didn''t really do anything in a traditional way; we experimented to see what we could do.”
Luckily, Eagles Watch lacked symmetrical surfaces so flutter echo was no problem. Bell isolated the drums and occasionally removed the baffles to create a titanic drum sound. Recording in a house of glass walls and marble floors presented enough problems, but “Jacknife” Lee prefers a guerilla approach in general.
“Garrett likes to do things that engineers wouldn''t necessarily do,” Bell confides. “So we''re quite experimental. Sometimes guitar sounds were achieved with crappy mics and practice amps. If they sounded interesting we just went with it. And we didn''t change the sound, if it was good we kept it. That''s what we do most of the time. We''re going for good sound, but sometimes a crappy sound can be a good sound. We don''t track a lot of things and then repair it later.”
With that sense of immediacy ruling all their decisions, Lee and Bell tracked most effects during the sessions, trusting their well-honed instincts throughout.
“We used a lot of compression and distortion when recording drums and guitars,” Bell explains. “But we do a load of stuff while we''re recording so we pick the sound as we do it. With a few things, we treat a DI later or do crazy effects. But we tend to say, ‘this is the sound, pick it, and commit to it.'' We work in a modern way but in an old-school fashion. If you play around with plug-ins it can be an endless process. But I do like UAD plug-ins, the 1176s, the Fatso, and I am big fan of proper [Empirical Labs] Distressors, [SPL] Transient Designers, [Thermionic] Culture Vulture.”
“Crappy” mics and quick decisions gave way to seasoned choices when tracking drums. Though they occasionally put up two room mics and ran with it, the sensual drum textures of Fallen Empires arrived from a more classic approach.
“I have a traditional setup of a mic inside the kick, usually an AKG D112, then the mic outside of the kick would be an RE20 or FET 47,” Bell explains. “And a subkick. A SM57 or a SM7 on the snare with a 414 on the bottom head. Sometimes I would stick three mics on the snare top like a SM57 and a [Neumann] KM84 and a [AKG] 451, then the 451 might be heavily compressed to give us some room or attack. For hi-hats I like a large condenser like a 414. Toms would be [Sennheiser] 421s with maybe an additional 421 underneath to give more body to the tops. Overheads are [Neumann] U67s; room mics really varied, we used everything from Coles 4038s to SE ribbons to [Neumann] U87s. Sometimes, for a crunchy drum sound, just a couple SM57s close to the kit.”
Didn''t the brightness of the marble and glass surfaces affect the drum sound for the worse?
“It was a really nice tone, actually,” Bell says. “I thought it would be ridiculously bright but it wasn''t. I did use the Coles 4038s and the SE ribbons to make up for a lack of transient response in the high end. They''re ideal for that sort of problem. Royers are amazing too, but they are very bright and posh-sounding. Sometimes you need something that sounds a bit crunchier. I''m changing mics all the time. We experimented as well, like recording the drums in the bathroom, or cutting up a kick, hat, and snare drum, machine-like. If you do that, you''re making new sounds every time; it''s not just a stock drum kit. All the live drums on the record are played. Even if it was programmed, it''s still played by hand. Just like everything on the record. We also ran the soft and synths though a Fender Twin to make it sound cranky.”
Snow Patrol retrofitted a Malibu beach house for recording.
Bell used multiple mics on guitar cabs (typically Vox AC30s), preferring blend over EQ. Shure SM57, Sennheiser 421, and Neumann U87 were go-tos, with a focused 57 and 421 if he wanted “something a little harsh or straight-ahead rock and roll.” A U87 was used if the guitar sound was too clean.
An Ampeg B15 provided amplification for Paul Wilson''s bass, as did an Ampeg SVT rig. There, Bell ran “a [AKG] D112, an [Electro Voice] RE20, a 421 and FET 47, and I would blend them depending on the song, maybe two at a time. Sometimes we were going for a midrange-sounding bass tone without a lot of bottom end. A 57 and a 421 is perfect for that.”
Though Fallen Empires will sound familiar to most Snow Patrol fans, the band was aiming for reinvention, hoping to add the concept-album scenario to their long list of million-selling releases.
“There''s so much great new music that is inspiring,” Wilson concludes. “And great older stuff that you rediscover. The main thing is that everyone in this band has very varied musical taste. Some musicians only like one style of music, but we''re all into different stuff. Because of that, it''s quite easy to come up with different ideas for each album.”