Charlie Cooper (left), Joshua Eustis
Before going to press, Remix learned that Charlie Cooper, one half of Chicago-based duo Telefon Tel Aviv, passed away on Jan. 22, 2009. Stunned and saddened by the news, we felt the best way to pay tribute to Cooper and Telefon Tel Aviv's musical legacy was to share the production story of what is now the pair's final studio recording. As evidenced in the following article, Telefon Tel Aviv's soaring, melodic brand of electro is created with painstaking precision and a deep love of music.
Cooper and his longtime music partner, Joshua Eustis, had been flying under the radar for the better part of a decade. From their debut, Fahrenheit Fair Enough (Hefty, 2001), to their latest effort, Immolate Yourself (BPitch Control), the Remix team has not only loved the pair's brand of spacey, dreamy electronic music but also enjoyed hearing the group's sound evolve with each subsequent release.
Our deepest sympathies are with Cooper's family and friends, as well as with his best friend and music partner, Eustis. — The Remix Editors
IN 2004, ELECTRO-ACOUSTIC production partners Joshua Eustis and Charlie Cooper were spinning their wheels. Operating under the name Telefon Tel Aviv, the two had “gotten into a working method, coupled with the ways our lives were going, where we were miserable,” Eustis admits on the phone from his Chicago studio. Sixteen-hour studio days trying to perfectly manicure every square millimeter of sonic landscape had worn them down to the quick, despite the acclaim their intensely in-the-box efforts garnered.
A fateful gift in 2008, however, offered the twosome an opportunity to unwind and rewind, resulting in a reinvigorated creative partnership and the group's third full-length, Immolate Yourself (BPitch Control, 2009) — a 10-track, 46-minute reboot of the duo's process.
“A little over a year ago, my friend [Marc Hellner from Chicago band pulseprogramming] gave me an Otari MX5050BII, and it changed everything,” Eustis says of the 2-track, ¼-inch tape recorder. “While we were in the process of demoing, we were making loops, remixing to analog, slowing and speeding things up. It was so different than what we did before, and it has this timeless quality. It sounds real because it is real — it's a physical media to master. It's not ones and zeros; it's a physical piece of shit with silver oxide on it wrapped around an aluminum spool. The move to tape, for sure, for mixdown and as an instrument was a huge shift.”
One could also say that Immolate Yourself, the first Telefon Tel Aviv album since 2004's Map of What Is Effortless (Hefty), can equate part of its impetus to another type of “tape” that's been inspiring Eustis: Super 8 film, those wonderfully antiquated spools of 8 mm stock with which resolution doesn't matter as much as composition, and the physical process of shooting, developing and projecting is integral. Indeed, with its smudged and saturated, phantasmagorical quality — Immolate Yourself is an album that's as much “reel” music as it is real music.
“It was really interesting, the first time we bounced a track to the tape machine and recorded it back in,” Cooper says from his Chicago home. “We have [Chicago post-rock icons] Tortoise's old [Neotek Series II] mixer, and it made things sound more real; it sounded like what I remember music sounding like. It gave it this beautiful sound that wasn't there before — a little high end shaved here and there and not always as full-frequencied, but somehow sounding better, with more girth.
“The mixer also helped in the work flow, to have it in front of you where you could touch it,” Cooper continues. “[Following the tour for Map of What Is Effortless] Josh and I went away after years of being champions of virtual synths and other software, and now we've taken our studio back to '70s hardware gear. Everything we struggled with trying to get to do in 2001, when software was coming around, now there are a million options — things that make certain things we used to do easier. But at the same time, technology makes some things bland. There are people integrating it well, but so much music has really lost texture; it all sounds so glossy. We wanted to bring back that life and noise into a record that sounded like a record.”
For Immolate Yourself, Eustis and Cooper let go of the perfectionist approach — what Eustis deems “small cuts, micro-orchestrations and bullshit” — a preoccupation that had almost hobbled the partnership. On the pair's debut, Fahrenheit Fair Enough, the New Orleans-bred partners merged the prismatic drifts of jazzy Rhodes piano runs with high-definition bit-crushing. And Map of What Is Effortless (the construction and performance of which was anything but painless) showed that Telefon Tel Aviv could perfectly tune R&B through more heavily processed percussion, lacquered guitars and guest vocals often placed clean and upfront.
Preceded by a 2007 collection of remixes — reimagining Nine Inch Nails, Bebel Gilberto, Slicker and others with electric piano and digitally abraded sequencing — Immolate Yourself is an analog-anchored rebirth, viscera marbled with beautiful decay. The title itself, based on a Cooper lyric, refers to being consumed in the martial descent of unhealthy obsessions and seeing the need to burn it all to the ground. Meditating on destructive tendencies using nonnarrative romantic means, Eustis and Cooper found a way to cope and convey.
In the past, Telefon Tel Aviv began songs without demoing; rather, Eustis and Cooper produced demos from Digidesign Pro Tools sessions that could stretch a single minute's output across several weeks' input. For Immolate Yourself, songs came first — melodies, bass lines and chord changes occupied skeletal takes (or a moleskin journal full of musical staff paper in the case of classically schooled Eustis, who credits sleep-filtered flashes of subconscious for many starting points). Hardware synths were then fitted on top, treated to draw out their inherent ambient grain through finger oils and software sourced from Chicago's neo-soul/experimental/shoegaze artist Implex Grace.
Cooper often sketched his ideas first with an ARP Omni II, sparked by a love of Motown and Pink Floyd's abilities to draw so much from the unit's simple sliders. “I realized I liked making music more than writing, orchestrating or programming it,” Cooper says. The two then swapped and spliced their impressions. Sometimes, three full versions of a single song would exist because it felt healthier to conduct a complete overhaul than obsess over minutiae.
“My sensibilities as a mix engineer [for artists such as Black Light Burns, The Race, Milosh, The Album Leaf] are urban: loud kicks, snares, a lot of bass,” Eustis says. “Re-evaluating my own recordings, however, I started thinking about how big a kick drum really needs to be, how much low end there needs to be, whether I was overcompensating for something else with a gigantic drum. I think I worried that my songs weren't that good, so I was trying to make up for that in other ways. These things on a microlevel made me look at music on a macrolevel and helped me realize to first make the songs great, then worry about accentuating the details. The drums being tremendous became so tertiary. It became a matter of not blowing the song out.”
Eustis willingly attributes part of this newfound openness to time spent deep in the pocket aiding the collusive efforts of producer Apparat (Sascha Ring). “When we first met, like, five years ago at a festival in Belgium, all of us were into the idea to combine strings and other orchestral instruments with weird electronics and nerdy stuff,” Apparat recalls. “They did it with Map of What Is Effortless, and I did it on my Silizium EP . They did a better job, though.
“It was cool to find out we had such similar ideas even though there was an ocean between us,” Apparat continues. “We didn't see each other for maybe two years, and when we met again in Mexico, we found out all of us were a bit tired of nerdy electronics. That was when I found out Josh already did record productions and worked in recording studios. I'm coming from a totally different world. I grew up with only electronic music, so he offered me help with all the recording stuff. And we did [2007's] Walls, my last album, which is more about cool recording ideas and songs instead of showing off plug-in tricks.”
A LITTLE BIT SOFTER NOW
For the most part, Eustis and Cooper confined all of this playing around to inside their camp. Unlike on previous records, the two handled all vocal chores on Immolate Yourself. They employed outside assistance only when Chicago musicians Ryan Rapsys of Euphone and Rolan Vega added percussion and drum sequencing to the title track. Telefon Tel Aviv dedicated the majority of the recording to capturing and reamping Roland, Oberheim, Sequential Circuits, Yamaha, Nord and Moog synths. They layered the parts in key but with each one nudged over slightly to create a flanging effect, enriching the song as the track went slightly out of tune with each revolution.
A supporter of this approach was Turk Dietrich of New Orleans-founded, granular-shift-sculpting duo Belong. Dietrich, featured on the track “Mostly Translucent,” suggested using crust to broaden Telefon Tel Aviv's palette, and through a combination of lovingly abused mics, vintage outboard gear, Massey plug-ins, espresso and found sounds sourced from 1970s reel-to-reel church recordings, Immolate Yourself became a harmonic cyclorama. The album's oxidized moments, much like the work of William Basinski, flake more with each pass. The hiss — which a mastering engineer suggested should be removed but was subsequently vetoed — maintains a sense of nostalgia and yearning, a personalized mix whose “mistakes” are both beautiful and heartbreaking.
“We went for a quieter, more classic idea of a mix,” Cooper says. “We didn't do hard limiting. On the old records, we went as loud as it could be, but on this one, we decided people have volume knobs and can turn it up if they want.”
On a song such as “Your Mouth,” the potentiometer is an invaluable ally, with the brooding vocals engulfed in a dissociative swath of slurred chords. Meanwhile, during “You Are the Worst Thing in the World,” overcast lyrics are nowhere near as obscured, but each decibel opens up the periphery to sighs, arpeggiated synths and a series of gummy sprockets seizing and releasing melodic drones.
“It's like a Vonnegut kind of thing,” Cooper reflects on the album's themes of nature's anger and angry natures. “He found humor in the most fucked-up things, but it wasn't morbid. He just recognized that being a human in the world, you have to go along and watch the stupid shit — you can't stop it; you just have to laugh and say, ‘It's fucked up.’”
GERMANS LOVE THE DIRTY DUB
Releasing the unbuffed, musically buffered result is Germany's BPitch Control, the label established by minimal DJ/producer Ellen Allien.
“Ellen says she likes the record so much, and maybe it's because the Germans love their dirty dub at heart, even though she's so polished and pro and awesome-sounding in her music,” Eustis says. “Rhythm & Sound [a project from Berlin-based Basic Channel co-founder Moritz von Oswald], et cetera, always leave the noise in their signal chain, and it's culturally correct in dub music to have that tape hiss and have some things unbalanced.”
TELEFON TEL AVIV STUDIO GEAR
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Power Mac G5/dual 2.3 GHz
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD Accel 2
Otari MX-5050BII 2-track, ¼-inch analog tape recorder
Apogee AD-8000, DA-16X, Ensemble 24-bit/192 kHz audio interface
Neotek Series II (32 channel, 64 in-line 8-bus)
(2) AKG C 451 B, D 112
(2) Neumann KM 184, TLM 103
Shure SM57, Beta 57A, Beta 58A
(2) Soundelux U195
(3) unidentified Chinese ribbon mics
Grado RS1, SR125
Preamps, compressors, pedals, EQs
4ms Noise Swash “Telefon Teleswash” pedal
Altec 1592 mic preamp
(2) API Audio 550B discrete 4-band EQ, 2500 stereo compressor
Drawmer 1960 mic pre
Furman RV-1 spring reverb
(2) John Hardy M-1 mic pre
Maxon AD-999 analog delay
Moogerfooger MF-101 lowpass filter, MF-103 stage phaser, MF-104Z analog delay
Sovtek Big Muff
Universal Audio SOLO/610 mic pre
Handmade SSL bus comp
A handful of other weird handmade pedals without names
Cycling '74 Pluggo
Massey plug-ins (all)
Native Instruments Reaktor 5
Sonnox Oxford plug-ins
Synths, drum machines
ARP Omni-2, Solus
Clavia Nord Lead
Dave Smith Instruments Evolver tabletop
Linn Electronics LinnDrum
Moog Voyager Custom Edition
Oberheim Matrix 6, Xpander
Roland Jupiter-6, RS-09
Sequential Circuits Prophet VS
Yamaha DX-7, TX816
La Pavoni Europiccola manual espresso machine