“We made this record in such a different way,” says The Kills'' Jamie Hince, pausing to reflect on how he and Alison Mosshart prepared for recording their fourth album together—a seething potboiler of art-punk swagger called Blood Pressures (Domino). “A lot of the songs came together really quickly, and then I didn''t really strike upon a way of making it until we got quite far into the sessions. There was the vibe of certain records that were really getting to me—all those Compass Point [Studios] bands like Grace Jones, Sly & Robbie, Talking Heads, and Tom Tom Club—and that was mixed while listening to lots of the first Roxy Music record. So I had this idea about using different instruments to tug on different heartstrings.”
In the end, Blood Pressuresmarks a telling progression beyond the keening, angular textures of the duo''s 2008 cult breakthrough, Midnight Boom. That album bristled with compact, tightly rendered and spiky-sounding garage pop songs, many of them inspired by children''s playground chants from a 1967 documentary short called Pizza Pizza Daddy-O. This time around, the scope was more expansive, with Hince and Mosshart working separately and in unison to flesh out finished songs from a stockpile of ideas, and then building up a careful layering of the different parts for a heavier, cage-rattling tone throughout the album.
Teaming up once again with co-producer Bill Skibbe at his Key Club Studios in Michigan made the process feel familiar at first. “I have pretty strong memories of sitting in my little spot in the corner of the live room,” Mosshart says. “I had my [Tascam] 4-track cassette recorder, my acoustic guitar, my microphone and my reverb unit, and I was just writing most days, filling cassette tapes with ideas sometimes almost finished songs, and then showing everything to Jamie. It''s what I always do, really.”
But Hince felt immediately that Mosshart''s song sketches were coming from a deeper source; she''s been doing this for a while, after all, and the time she spent on the road last year with Jack White and Dead Weather certainly didn''t hurt. Hince knew his instrumentation had to match the energy. The Kills are a true “power duo,” in the sense that Mosshart belts out the lead vocals while Hince lays down the music with only programmed drums and one of several Hofner Galaxy guitars, which he de-tunes on the low string so he can play bass lines and chords simultaneously. But before he started work in earnest on Blood Pressures, he upgraded his old Akai MPC60 to an MPC4000, and assembled an arsenal of guitar amplifiers to get the big, beefy sound he needed.
“We had all the amps isolated in a separate room,” Skibbe explains, “with Jamie and Alison performing the songs in the live room. He has a crazy pedal board set up with two Boss [DD-3] delays and two Electro-Harmonix POGs. We usually use one of the POGs to thicken up the sound, and that feeds three guitar amps—a modified Fender Twin, this amazing Vox AC50, and a ''60s Silvertone 610 that bit the dust right after we''d finished tracking everything [laughs]. We split off the other POG for sub frequencies to help with the bass, and that goes to a ''68 Ampeg SVT with an 810 cabinet. Leave it to Jamie to have to be a full band, right?”
The big sound comes through like a sledgehammer in “Satellite,” which kicks off with a regenerative feedback effect that Hince gets by setting one DD-3 delay to overload the other. On the steady-rocking “Baby Says,” the main guitar part modulates through a vintage Maestro G-2 Rhythm ''N Sound—more of a suitcase than a pedal—while a faraway Mellotron comes in near the end of the song, doubling the guitar line in the upper registers, Eno style. In fact, Hince sometimes didn''t play the guitar at all; “Nail In My Coffin” features a clavinet cycling through an Echoplex Mark IV over a stripped and insistent backbeat.
A sparsely arranged song like “Nail” is the perfect vehicle for Mosshart to step to the mic—usually a Neumann M249, at the top of a vocal chain that includes one of Skibbe''s custom-built compressors. Based on a vintage LA-2A schematic, his Red Stripe 5-9c was used on most of Blood Pressures, but figures most prominently on “You Don''t Own the Road,” where Mosshart teases the edges of distortion whenever she goes strongly for a note.
“When you hear that on an old Stevie Wonder or James Brown record,” Skibbe explains, “the vocal is going in way too hot to the tape machine, and it''s over-modulating. I wanted to get that sound on this record, but since we''re going into Pro Tools, the best way to do it is crank up the gain [on the Red Stripe] and let Alison push into that over-modulation. We set the reduction all the way up, and let it over-compress the whole time, so when she''s singing, she''s really mashing the compressor. The only EQing we did was a highpass filter on about 80 or 100 [Hz], just to get rid of that low-frequency rumble so the limiter wouldn''t hit it.”
It was always important for Mosshart to be able to feel the compression dynamics during her performance, which meant printing her takes with the effect, instead of adding it afterwards. “I think I absolutely play to it,” she says. “I moan and complain in the studio if something doesn''t sound a certain way, because I''m playing for the bigger picture. You sing differently if the vocal is breaking up. You start to play with that and use that when you''re singing. If the delay is a certain length, you might lengthen and shorten words accordingly—things like that.”
For all the attention to sonic detail (and there''s more: the studio''s custom 32-input Flickinger console—a fabled piece that was rescued in 1975 from Sly Stone''s Hollywood den of hedonism—was used to add some bottom-end heft to most of the sampled and live drums on the album), Hince''s main concern was to make sure Blood Pressures came across as a hard-hitting statement of how The Kills have grown as a band. Even so, he''s quick to point out that he and Mosshart remain true to what inspired them to start making music in the first place.
“It''s almost like the songs are less important than the attitude we put into playing them,” he says. “That''s always been the thing, which I guess is the spirit of punk, and it''s the same with early blues. When you''re making music like that, you have to be a good editor. You have to know what to throw out, to know what''s good and what''s bad, and then commit all the way to what you''re doing.”
Read our complete interview with recording engineer Bill Skibbe.
I definitely want to talk more about the vocal chain you used with Alison Mosshart. Which microphone(s) did you use? Were there “sweet spots” on the 736-5 and the Red Stripe that you tended to rely on for her particular range? What frequencies were you listening for the most, and what aspects of her voice were you trying to bring out?
On Alison''s vocal, it just really depended on the song, but I know—like on “You Don''t Own the Road,” it''s a slightly crunchier effect, and that comes from basically over-compressing the Red Stripe. One of the things that bothers me about distortion on vocals is, I really hate running an amplifier for it. I don''t like the way it sits in the mix, and if you''re blending it with a dry vocal, there''s always a delay problem or a phase problem. All the processing through the amplifier gives you a few milliseconds of delay that I think throws it off and really thins out the vocals.
I know for Alison, after coming in off the Dead Weather tour, she had been singing with an amplifier, and I think it worked really well for that band because the music is so thick, but for The Kills, it''s such a different dynamic and there''s so much more space and rhythm going on, basically because of the drum programming, that I didn''t want to rely on the amplifier, plus we wanted to move away from duplicating the Dead Weather sound.
So I really got into the idea of printing the sound but almost abusing the gear. A lot of the old records that I like—like on Stevie Wonder or James Brown vocals, when they really start to go for it, you know what was happening is they set the level to the tape machine, and then it''s over-modulating. It''s just going in way too hot. So I thought, let''s start doing that for our distortion sound on this record. Let''s really just crank up the gain and make it real hot, and Alison can push into that over-modulation if she wants to. And that''s exactly what happened on “You Don''t Own The Road.” We set the reduction all the way up on the Red Stripe, and let it over-compress the whole time, so when she''s singing, she''s really mashing the compressor and getting that really nice harmonic distortion.
Oddly enough, the only EQing we were doing at that point was a hi-pass filter on about 80 or 100 [Hz], just to get rid of some of the foot stomps and that low-frequency rumble, and keep the limiter from hitting on that stuff. But we really weren''t doing any other EQing on that song in particular. On the way in, we didn''t EQ at all. We just let it go.
At the beginning of the vocal chain, we were using an old Neumann 249. I really like that on her voice because it''s not especially bright. I''m trying to accentuate her voice anyway, keeping the upper register tamed down and really getting the meat and potatoes of her voice. We used that mic for almost everything, except for “Heart Is A Beating Drum,” which is an old U47. The reverb on that song is a natural reverb. We put her in a marble foyer to sing, and then I mangled it through an 1176 that we set to pop—almost like what you''d use for drum pumping, like an overhead compression with slow attack and fast release and a high ratio, and I just printed it like that, just because we wanted her to feel amped up as she was singing. And it came out having this ridiculous quality to it, where there''s tons of sustained reverb that you hear on the back end. I mean, it was pretty abusive [laughs], but I love the effect.
I really like the idea of that—of committing to a sound before it''s even recorded.
Oh, yeah. One of the things I''ve learned here over the years is that you really should commit on the way in. It just helps everybody out. You''re already listening to it the way that it''s gonna be. There''s no funny business. You''re not searching for a sound in the end. And then everybody plays off of that. If you get a good performance, it really makes a difference [for the rest of the song]. And with “You Don''t Own The Road,” we were really trying to get an amped-up performance without it being over-the-top. And we really struck on that—hitting the preamp a little bit harder, and then turning the reduction up, and all of a sudden Alison was able to perform on that. It just brought it to life. It''s dangerous, but it''s the way people used to record. You didn''t want to have tape hiss coming up with your compression later on, so you had to compress on the way in. Now that we''ve got computers, it''s not so much of an issue because you''re not dealing with that noise floor anymore, but I think it''s just one of the fun aspects of searching for sounds.
One of the songs that''s more stripped back—“Pots And Pans”—we were searching for something for the acoustic guitar sound that was a little bizarre. Something that had sustain and overdrive, but we didn''t want to do any processing after the fact. So we did the most ridiculous thing. I''d read an article a long time ago about Keith Richards doing “Street Fighting Man,” and I guess he had recorded that song with a reel-to-reel portable deck, and he had recorded the acoustic guitar track as a scratch or a guide. And it had overdriven—maybe there was a limiter on the deck, or he just hit it really hard and there was tape saturation—but they ended up using that as the guide for the song, and that''s why that intro sounds so wonderful.
So we tried to search for something that was similar, and we found this old early ''70s Sony newsreel cassette deck. My grandfather actually used to record polka bands with it [laughs]. And it has a ridiculous limiter in it, and it also has a line out, so you can basically do a tape bounce through it, where you can record into it, and then play it back off the repro head. So we set that thing up next to the guitar, and then recorded through it to do the initial tracking of the song. It''s ridiculous because we''re hitting cassette tape coming in, and it does all this crazy limiting and gives a bizarre overdrive to it. We actually tracked that one off of the tape, and then just played over the top of it later on.
Jamie has some great guitar sounds happening here, too—like the jittery regeneration effect that starts off “Satellite,” and what sounds like an Echoplex on the very end of “Nail In My Coffin.” Do you recall what some of these were?
Jamie runs so many guitar amplifiers to amass this big guitar sound, and he''s got such an unusual style of playing, where he''s playing bass lines with his thumb on the de-tuned low string, and then he''s playing melody lines with his fingers and fretting up at the top. So he''s got this bizarre fingerpicking style that makes it a real musical and melodic movement happening. So the challenge of that is to capture both the bass and all of the treble at the same time.
We did No Wow and Midnight Boom out here as well, so over the course of those two records, we developed this method of recording. We have all of the amps isolated in a separate room, and then Jamie and Alison would be playing in the same room, performing the song, so she''s singing at the same time that he''s playing. We had all the guitar heads—well, any amps that had a head—in the same room with him so he could mess around with tone and everything. When we were recording the guitars, we would try to make adjustments in the control room and on the amplifier at the same time to get the tone that we wanted. Having the head in the same room really helped out with that.
For the bass sound, we were running a ''68 SVT with an 810 cabinet, and then we usually took a DI with that in case we wanted some super subs. And then we would have three or four guitar amps running. Usually he''s got this really amazing small Vox AC50 amp that''s just unbelievable. It''s real high maintenance. I think we blew it up a couple of times during the session [laughs], because it runs really hot. So that thing was going into a 212 [twin] AC30 closed-back cabinet. It''s just a meaty sound. Even though the Vox has a lot of compression going on, it''s not nearly as much as a Marshall or something. They have way more top end, and that AC50 is the mainstay amplifier.
Then we had a modified Fender Twin that turned out to have a ''60s cabinet, with an ''80s amp chassis in it. We opened it up one time to sell what the hell was going on with it, because it didn''t sound anything like my Twin here. It sounds unreal—tons of power, just absolutely brutal. It had been completely modified at some point, so it was a total Frankenstein of an amplifier. So we ran that and the AC50, and then we had a rotating cast in the third amp position, and the one we loved the most, eventually by the end of the record, completely bit the dust. It was a ''60s Silvertone solid state 610 amplifier, and that thing sounded unbelievable. I know I repaired it seven different times [laughs]. It went from power transistors blowing up to power resistors cooking, and eventually we fried the output transformer. Luckily we had tracked everything. We were just going in for some overdubs and it cooked. It was a very sad day.
You said you kept a number of heads in the room with Jamie. What about the Ampeg setup?
That was in its own room two. Here at the studio we have two dead rooms in the back. One is big enough for drums—we built it with ''70s drums in mind—and then the other one is basically an isolation closet. Over the years it''s become the bass and guitar room. There tie lines into all those rooms, so we''re able to run feeds in the back.
Jamie''s got a crazy pedal board setup—he''s got two Boss delay pedals, and oddly enough, that''s the sound at the beginning of “Satellite.” He''s got a crazy regen thing going on, where one feeds into the other, and it creates that insane feedback build. He really plays those pedals like an instrument, and he plays so percussively anyway, he''s using the delay to pop in and out.
He''s also got two Electro-Harmonix POGs—the first version of them. One of them we usually use for grit, just to thicken up the sound, and that would feed the three guitar amps. And we''d split one off for sub frequencies to help out with the bass tracking. So a lot of the time, we had this insane pedal board setup where we were using three A/D boxes [like the Divided By 13 Switch Hazel] and splitting the signal off. The Switch Hazel has a function—just a clean boost, so you don''t lose any tone—called Lift, and if you put that on and dial it all the way down so you''re just getting a little bit of it, sometimes that would help out with maxing the tone out, and really making sure we didn''t lose anything from loading the pickups down so much with all that splitting.
I have crazy notebooks filled with how we did each song and what the patching scheme was on that mess. So we''d bring it in usually and then split right away off of one of the POGs and go to the bass amp—the bass DI—and then the signal would run through the other POG, into the delay pedals, and out to the guitar amplifiers.
Leave it to one guy to have to be a full band, you know? [laughs] On “DNA,” there''s an actual bass that he played on it, but most everything else, there''s no bass guitar—just that SVT blasting away in there. And oddly enough, a lot of the time we were trying to keep that bass tone really thick, so we''d turn the amp way down. Low volume out of a bass amp sounds great—you get a lot of roundness out of it, and the sub frequencies come out, instead of hitting the speaker distortion. Those SVTs have so much power, it''s crazy.
I didn''t get to ask him this, but is he still playing the Hofner Galaxy?
Yep. He''s all Hofner [laughs]. He''s got a bunch of those Galaxys. There''s one that''s got a different neck on it, and for some reason, it''s a lot more meaty-sounding. The other one has a clearer tone, so we''d toggle back and forth between those and always try them out. The Sharkfin pickups on those are great.
“Baby Says” – that modulating guitar sound, and a lot of the tone in that, comes from this old Maestro Rhythm & Sound pedal, which is more of a suitcase than it is a pedal. It comes in a big Samsonite suitcase [laughs]. They''re awesome because they have the original Maestro Fuzztone in them, and then they have two tone stops that going along with that, and they''re unreal sounding. They also have insane modulation that I always think of as like an African Manu Dibango sound—this messed-up, fuzzed, modulated crazy sound. It''s also got an Auto-wah in it, and a bass synthesizer, which we didn''t use because it doesn''t track very well. It really blended well with the Twin. It''s an effect that you can''t get out of a tremelo that''s on an amplifier.
The cool thing about a new piece of gear like that for a record is all of a sudden it just takes you to a new avenues that you wouldn''t normally think of going down. That''s the fun about having those toys at a session—all of a sudden you''ve got something new to fiddle around with that sparks some creative aspect. And I think the funniest thing on this one is that about halfway through the record, I sold my Mellotron to Jamie, and then all of a sudden, he''s using it!
It''s on “Wild Charms”—a great little song. How did you get that slapback effect on his vocal? It reminds me of John Lennon''s sound with Phil Spector—or when Lennon produced himself on Mind Games.
[…] The Model 92, I don''t know if Jack Douglas used that on Double Fantasy, but that was around three thousand bucks when it was new, and it was advertised as this “new portable delay line by Lexicon”—for three thousand bucks, in 1977! But they''re great. As you get further out on the delay line, it gets grittier and grittier because it''s running through more chips along the way and slowing down the time, so you get that signal loss and distortion that creeps in. They don''t sound as clean as PCM technology. It''s a lot more of a real honest delay.
In Phil Spector''s time, it was probably tape delay. We used a lot of tape delay on this. We used the 440 for slapback, and I have an old AG350, as well as just a straight up Ampex 350 machine—the 15 ips delays are great. That''s just classic-sounding. And we have an Echoplex Tonemaster, I think—it''s a four-channel unit with this instantaneous echo on it. You can switch back and forth between the dry signal and the echo, so it''s like super dub style on a snare drum hit. We use the Echoplex Mark IV on a clavinet for “Nail In My Coffin.” Jamie had come in with a broken arm so he couldn''t play guitar, so he played the clavinet instead. He used his left hand for that, and with his right he was moving the sliders on the Echoplex. It was all performance-based.
How did the Flickinger''s preamps come into play in getting the overall sound for the album? Were there particular frequencies you'd hone in on for particular instruments, and what in general does the console add to the sound?
It''s funny because—well, I don''t know about that one. The thing is, I always use the console for drum tracking. It can''t be beat. It''s a lot like a Neve 1073—big and thick and it wallops you over the head. It''s not as tight in the low mids as the Neve is. The Neve has that low-mid punch that hits you in the chest, and the Flickinger has more bottom end. Years ago, we had a BCM10 as a sidecar, and I just found the two to be so similar that I couldn''t justify keeping it, so I sold it and got a Neve Melbourne, because it''s got such a drastically different sound.
So all of the drum sampling that we did for the record was all done through the Flickinger, except for the band room sampling that Jamie was doing. I don''t know if you talked about that. I really love the preamp sounds in the Flickinger—in fact the 736 that we make is derived from that console. We got it originally from Marty Feldman—the producer, not the comic—who owned Paragon in Chicago, where they did all the Ohio Players and Styx records. Mark Linkous had that Flickinger console until he died, and then a friend of the family named Adrian Olsen took it.
Anyway, when Marty sold our console to me, he didn''t think that it worked, because he''d gotten it directly from Sly Stone, when Sly was down and out after the whole—I don''t know if you know the story, but his pit bull, during the making of Small Talk, mauled his kid, and his wife left him, and then he really bottomed out after that. He moved out of the Bel Air house back up to Marin or wherever his other place was, up in San Francisco, and ditched the studio. And he called Marty and said, “Hey, you want this console?” And Marty sent a couple of guys out there to pick it up, and apparently it was such a madhouse that the guys just cut the cable between the console and the telephone booth rack next to it—it holds the preamps, the patchbay, the master section and all of the logic for the bussing. There were these seven Alco connectors with about three thousand wires, all unlabeled, and Marty''s guys—instead of de-pinning the Alcos and pulling them back through and labeling everything, cut the cables. Just cut ‘em. And they got it back to Chicago and couldn''t put it back together. They had no idea where anything went.
I''m going way off—sorry about that. But long story short, when we bought it from Marty, it didn''t have any spare parts, so we''ve been forced over the years to dig up people who worked for the company. Dan [Flickinger], at the end, he went away and disappeared. He''s been in hiding for 35 years. So all the people who worked there, when the company was going into bankruptcy after Flickinger went away, they scuttled the factory and took the last remaining console they''d built for NAMM, and they took it to Funkadelic''s studio—United Sound in Detroit—and they built the last console on-site for them there. And then everybody just disappeared.
So we''ve tracked a bunch of those people down, and we ended up just remaking anything that we couldn''t find—spare EQs for the console, and op amps and line cards and all that. Each one of these consoles was so different. Even though they weren''t supposed to be custom, every single one of them ended up that way [laughs]. So we ended up just remaking all the stuff, and people kept bugging me about preamps out of the console, and we just built them into the 500 series lunchbox format, because they''re so popular and everybody''s got one.
Anyway, we did all the drum tracking here at the studio. The first couple of sessions that we did, we amassed new drum samples. We had leftover samples from the last record […] and a lunchbox full of our 736s up there and a Pro Tools rig, and we just sampled everything we could in the band room, from marimbas to the biggest 28-inch bass drum. I think there''s tympani in “Baby Says” that was recorded up there.
The thing is, we didn''t use tape on this record at all, other than bouncing things. Sometimes we''d process something through the tape machine—like the [Ampex] 350, we''d run some things out through it for grit, and then bounce it back in and line it back up. But the thing to remember about recording on the computer is that if you go in through vintage gear, it sounds great. The computer doesn''t help you at all tonally, whereas with tape, that''s what everybody loves. You hit that tape machine, and it comes back sounding different, and you have something going in that''s not quite electric, it comes back sounding good. It smears it around for you. It does a little EQing and out it comes, and the computer isn''t forgiving like that. It doesn''t give you anything—but it doesn''t detract either, so having a pile of old gear allows you to make a great sound [even without a tape machine].
Did you deliver pre-mixes to Tom Elmhirst in London, or were you in on the mixing session itself? I''m just curious as to what you might have been listening for in the pre-mixing or mixing stage; there's a nicely layered “thickness” and stereo spread to every song.
Basically, he just got the raw tracks to work with. I wasn''t at the session, but I love it when people like Elmhirst mix a record. I think we even came from a similar background. It''s funny because the other day I went on his website, and I read his bio and I didn''t even realize that he had started mixing on a Bush record that Steve Albini had done. And I was working with Steve at the time, and I remember when he went over and worked on that. Read our complete interview with Alison Mosshart & Jamie Hince For your last album, you found a short film called Pizza Pizza Daddy-O that gave you a lot of ideas to work from. Can you point to any one thing that provided a similar flash of inspiration for this album?
Hince: No [laughs]. I mean, it really was not—we made this record in such a different way. We''ve always deliberately done that. This was just rolling out songs, you know? A lot of the songs came together really quickly, and then I didn''t really strike upon a way of doing it until we got quite far into the sessions. I guess there''d been this mixture of records, the vibe of certain records that were really getting to me. They seemed to be all those Compass Point bands like Grace Jones and Sly & Robbie and Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, and that was mixed with listening to lots of the first Roxy Music record, so I had this idea about using different instruments to tug on different heartstrings. But that''s it, really. There wasn''t a moment when the penny dropped.
Alison, how about you? How did you approach your lyrics and prepare for your vocals on this record?
I dunno—I just went into the studio and wrote. And then I just see what comes out. I never really have a game plan. I just write and write and see what happens.
So then you both leave it all, pretty much, for the recording sessions?
Hince: We come in with bits and pieces. Both of us have always come in with notebooks full of words, whether it''s things that are set out like lyrics, or maybe some journal entries or some philosophies about nonsense that we''ve written on the road. That''s always been a starting point for making a record, but this time around I guess I had some more tapes full of musical ideas that I''d come up with, so that was the starting point for me. I had sort of a diary of music this time—like a journal of music.
It seems like Key Club Studios in Michigan has become a second home for you in a way. Is there a vibe about that place that maybe makes you feel more relaxed or open to getting creative?
Mosshart: We just love it there. It''s kind of brilliant for a band like us. There''s no timeframe, really—there''s no working hours. It''s just, you live there, and you can play music when you want. You can be blasting guitar amps at two in the morning if you want to—whenever, you know. It''s just set up that way, to be ultimately and completely creative, so you can do whatever you want whenever you want to do it. And that''s the appeal to us, really. That and it''s an incredible studio, it''s got great gear, our two best friends run it and own it, and there''s two pretty cool dogs there [laughs].
Can you tell me a little bit about the rapport you''ve built up in working with Bill [Skibbe] and Jessica [Ruffins] at the studio?
Hince: I think with a band like ours, it''s almost like the songs have been less important than the attitude of the people playing the songs. That''s always been the thing, which I guess was always the spirit of punk, was that it was the attitude and the way you played something—the same with early blues, and that''s always been something that we''ve wanted to do. And when you''re making music like that, the most important thing is to be a good editor, to know what to throw out, to know what''s good and what''s bad. And Bill and Jessica have just become indispensable silent partners in that way, where we absolutely trust their view. They never explicitly come out and say, “You can''t use that!” But I just trust them. I can see what they get excited about, and that really helps to have them listening.
There was one time on the last album Midnight Boom, I was putting together “Last Day of Magic,” and then at one point I changed the drums and Jessica cried. She pleaded with me to put the old drums back, and you can''t pay for passion like that. It''s pretty amazing. We finished the record at Rak in London and brought them over to do that, because by that time we just couldn''t really—they were such a huge part of the record that we just couldn''t finish it without them, really.
Rak—is that Mickie Most''s old studio?
Hince: That''s correct, yeah. It''s a great little place.
We talked a couple of years back for a story I did with Remix magazine, and you told me then that you''re not all that enamored by the technical ins and outs of making an album. But this new one has so much more going on sonically than the last one—did you both get into trying some new things in the studio this time around?
Hince: Well, I just get bored easily when something takes a long time, like drum programming. I never really got into it because it''s so tedious. You have an idea and get real excited, and then five hours later, you''re ready to do it, you know? So it''s kind of been a recent thing for me, to have patience for that, and also I''ve gotten much better and quicker at programming, and using an MPC is a pretty easy thing to use. I have a 4000 now, which honest to God makes a world of difference from the MPC60—you know, the 60 has like 30 seconds of memory, and it''s got floppy disks. So much is time-consuming about that thing. It''s brilliant, but—anyway I''ve bought a 4000.
So things like that were sped up, which I guess allowed more time for creativity. I don''t know—I just got into it. I think on this record, I''ve sort of been let loose with music a lot more because of circumstances. There were a couple of moments when Alison was away with Dead Weather on tour, and it kind of dawned on me that I behave differently in the studio when she''s not there. It''s like I''ve got no one to show things to, or play things to, or say, “What do you think of that?” And it made me aware that if I play something, I''m always out of the corner of my eye looking at her for her reaction.
And I suppose I''ve let loose a bit more and gone into a bit of a daydream with it. I think if I''d started playing something on a Mellotron or trying this and that, if she''d have been there in the room on some of those occasions, I probably would have given up because I can''t play those instruments very well. There would have just been lots of bum notes [laughs], but on my own I saw it through. I don''t know why, I think I just wanted to experiment more with different instruments.
Alison, how was the studio experience for you this time around?
It was great, you know? The studio is a strange world and a strange headspace to be in. Making a record is so weird, and when you come out of it, you kind of forget a lot of how it went, you know? I have pretty strong memories of sitting in my little spot in the corner of the live room with my 4-track cassette recorder and my acoustic guitar and my microphone and my reverb unit, and writing most days, filling cassette tapes with ideas and half-finished songs, and sometimes almost finished songs, and then going and showing everything to Jamie. But this isn''t really anything new. This is kind of what I always do, and it''s how I write.
Hince: Well, you discovered you were better at it this time [laughs]. Really, you were writing a lot more. I mean, it''s always been the case where she''s been really prolific, and she can sit in front of a microphone with a tape recorder, and she''ll play for five hours and come up with ten or twelve things, and out of those there''s often two brilliant ideas, and I''ll take those and run, but there kind of very small ideas. Obviously songwriting develops, so now she''s writing a lot more finished things—brilliant finished things. In fact, there was quite a significant volume of really good things that were in this Americana vein. And it''s really difficult when I hear a song like that, because I feel like we''ve been there and done that, but when you hear these songs and they''re so great, you don''t want to not pursue it. So on a couple of those occasions, I suppose it made me really reinvent the music for those things, and almost do the opposite of what the song was doing.
“Damned If She Do” has a PJ Harvey punk swagger to it. When the second section [“she come alive when she on her deathbed”] comes in, it''s almost jarring, the way it spreads out and sounds bigger. How did you decide on that change in sound?
Hince: We spent a lot of time doing that and getting it wrong, and then trying again. We''d get to the end of the night thinking we''d done it, and then go home, come back in the next morning and be like, “We haven''t done it.” There''s that chorus drum beat that used to go all the way through the song, and it was almost an accident, where it was driving me crazy that there''s this same drum beat all the way through. I went to add something and accidentally muted everything but the snare drum, and suddenly it all opened up, and I just thought, “That''s perfect.” There''s just this one snare drum, and then you have this jarring wall that comes in for the chorus part. I''m glad you picked that song. It was a sort of problem child. I think we''ve got three or four versions of it, and they are pretty much three or four different songs with the same lyrics. We really tried so many ways of doing that.
Alison, when you track vocals, do you do it with headphones on and record clean, or do you record with effects?
I usually always record with effects. I just think it sounds better. It feels more like a room, or like a performance. When it''s really dry, it kind of weirds me out.
Hince: I mean, there''s nothing honest about singing with no effects. A microphone and a cable going to a tape machine through a mixing desk is an effect. People get this sod thing about purity and honesty, but I just think it''s rubbish. You put somebody through a Raytheon or a Fairchild, and it''s just like, come on, that''s what really brings out the beauty of somebody''s voice.
Mosshart: I love effects. I''m a huge fan of them. I love delay and I love reverb.
Hince: We use this really weird delay, actually, on the vocals. It''s this Lexicon 92 Delta T, which was originally made for stadium gigs, for staggering the sound. There''s a time delay from the front to the back of the audience, so they invented this thing as a way of staggering the sound in speakers. And it makes an amazing delay on vocals. That''s our little baby. We used that on “Heart Is A Beating Drum.”
Alison, do you adjust your performance to fit the effect you''re using? I''m thinking of the distortion effect in “You Don''t Own The Road,” for example.
I think I absolutely do. I moan and complain in the studio if there''s not enough of something, if it doesn''t sound a certain way, because I''m playing to the effect. I''m playing for the bigger picture, so you sing differently. You sing differently if the vocal is breaking up—you start to play with that and use that when you''re singing. If the delay is a certain length, you lengthen and shorten words accordingly. Yeah, I think you sing totally different, but I think that''s part of the art of it, you know?
Jamie, tell me about “Wild Charms”—it reminds me of John Lennon, but how did you track that song?
It was really odd, actually, because this seems to happen to me a lot where I try to finish one song—I think I was working on “DNA”—and I ended up just going off on a tangent and I wrote “Wild Charms.” So I just went straightaway in front of the mic and played piano and sang it, and then put everything on it after that. The [live] drums was the last thing to go down, and it''s weird because obviously we always play everything really stripped back, and I think it was because it was such a departure for me and such a vulnerable moment, singing that song like that, and it''s pretty personal, I think I just stacked up instruments on it, sort of as a little army to defend me. It cushions the vulnerability a little bit more.
You also mentioned that Roxy Music was part of the catalog of influences that hit you, and on “Baby Says” I can hear a distant-sounding guitar line that comes in just before the last verse.
Hince: Yeah, that''s a Mellotron. It''s following the same part as the guitar, but the Mellotron kind of opens it up. You know, you never try and explicitly put things across, but for me, that song is like a real road song. It''s a real journey song, on the road and running away [laughs], and that middle section with the Mellotron just opens it up in a really romantic way for me.