THE KING IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE KING

Trey Gunn, King Crimson’s multi-instrumental prodigy, briefs us on the process and philosophy underpinning the production of their most recent whirlwind of cacophony The Power to Believe and why, chances are, the band you’re tracking is going about it the wrong way.
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“There’s something about knocking it out very quickly, desperately, and dangerously,” Trey Gunn declares one afternoon. “When there’s a certain level of desperation, you just go to a higher level. We miss that so much today with Pro Tools and related means of recording. If you know that you can do 30 takes then you don’t necessarily pour 100% into each one of them. When the Beatles were recording albums, they would be bouncing tracks while John and Paul were doing backing vocals, bouncing a tambourine performance or such, and they only had two shots to nail it. There was an aura of desperation that translated onto the tape. One of the odd things about today’s world is that you don’t have to enter a studio to make a good recording. So many bands have the tendency to bring their material in ill-prepared. You can tweak things as you go along, which is cool, but there’s really something special about having a band that is well-prepared and can just go in and record quickly.”

So it goes for prog mindbenders King Crimson, whom Trey has been a member of since their 1995 return-to-form release Thrak. Crimson (rounded out by ringleader, lead guitarist, and prog-rock icon Robert Fripp, guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew, and percussionist Pat Mastelotto) have been in existence (numerous hiatuses notwithstanding) for nearly 35 years; and their approach to the recording studio certainly demonstrates the classic ethic of writing/rehearsing material for extended periods of time before entering the studio realm as opposed to using the spoils of technology as creative crutch.

According to Trey, one week for recording and one week for mixing is the general protocol. “Generally the strategies that Robert has taken to recording the band is: to capture the performance, get the heat of the performance — not unlike a Duke Ellington recording. Robert very calculatedly, and very wisely, does not employ the usual strategy where bands get together, write the material, go into the studio, make the record, and then go on tour behind it. He thinks that is ridiculous and I would agree with him. What you want to do is write the material, go on the road, play it a lot, and then make the records. Therefore you are going to be able to perform the material much better, after having gelled it with the audience, and it’s going to make tracking the record go so much quicker because everyone is going to know how to actually perform the songs. When you go out and play music on stage it changes, in subtle ways, just having the energy of the audience combining with energy of the musicians. After playing a piece live numerous times, we may change the tempo quite a bit; which can mean reworking some parts or changing the structure of the pieces. So you just learn a lot about the material once you’ve played it live and then when it’s time to make the record you go in, find great sounds, play it, and then you’re done. There’s really no need to diddle about in the studio.”

For the Power to Believe sessions, Trey and drummer Pat Mastelotto scoured the streets of Nashville looking for a proper recording environment and an engineer that could digitally capture Crimson while still allowing them to retain their trademark visceral “live” edge. After an extensive search they settled with engineer Machine — who sat in on the band’s pre-production sessions and started a pre-emptive problem solving process. “We needed to have our technical options planned before we went into the studio,” Trey explains. “The problem with the studio is that there’s a lot of sitting around and waiting and when the vibe is right, you’re ready to record, and you have to stop and do something technical you can ruin the whole vibe. One little rift can ruin the whole day.”

“It was Machine’s job to figure out what in the world we were doing, how to do it, and leave as many options open as possible while doing everything fast. I suppose that is the role of the producer, less in arranging, but figuring out what a band is doing musically.

It’s a chore. We’ve had some engineers pull their hair out trying to record us. Crimson uses all this weird vocabulary to describe the sections, the counter-rhythms, everything that’s happening. For a lot of people they come to it and they don’t know how to unlock it, even musicians, so Machine’s job was to get as educated as possible.”

“King Crimson is not an easy band to get to sound good on record. There’s so much sound, so much musical information. The instruments are loud and there is only so much the ear can take in sequence. There was a great onslaught of sound and noise that needed to be organized.” To combat this potentially problematic scenario, the band tracks live, generally picking from a maximum of three takes. Afterward they would oftentimes employ a technique that manager David Singleton calls “backward improvisation.” If unhappy with the initial takes, the rhythm would completely re-write their respective parts under the guitar work — a unique approach even for a band as left of center as King Crimson. “Crimson has an underlying philosophy that the rhythm section is not there to hold everyone together. If you take that normal rule of rock and roll, concerning what the rhythm section does, you find a different kind of freedom.”

In regards to Trey’s role in King Crimson as multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, showcasing non-traditional instruments (particularly the Warr guitar), he comments, “The role within King Crimson is a specific role for the Warr guitar, and also the role within a rock band is a specific one for the instrument; at least how I see it. Other contexts would require a different approach. The instrument, basically, is designed to tap. However that’s not always the appropriate sound so I pluck it a lot also. The tap brings out these really intense high frequencies that aren’t always appropriate for this particular material. So what I’ve found over a period of time is that, for recording, a combination of direct and miked approaches is ideal. Generally the topside of the instrument goes direct; and I don’t usually use much effects. For the past record I used the Eventide Eclipse, the TC Electronics G Force Dimension Beam, and the Line 6 Pod. For the bass side I generally go direct with the best DI that we can get, then I mic some cabinets — usually the Euphoric Audio 3x10’s; but for the Power to Believe I was using SWR’s. The end result is really a combination of those and the engineer setting the EQ to fit around the drums.”

The band is also not strangers to live recording, as they have quite an extensive back catalog of live albums they release for die-hard fans. Trey describes the process as “fairly guerilla”; consisting of two ADATs being brought out on the road to capture each of the band’s live performances. Because of the meticulous nature of the band, concerning the extensive preparations undertaken before they even hit the road, oftentimes they capture house mixes straight from the board and into the ADAT’s. The results serve as sonic testament to the stripped-down take Crimson uses when approaching their music from the recording stance.

“Crimson is such a live process that no matter what we record you can be sure that it’s going to end up somewhere else in four months. That’s one of the reasons we release so many live albums. Crimson is generally an okay ‘record making’ band, but its real life is on stage. We are constantly reworking material — even the stuff from 30 years ago, so there’s nothing definitive about a recording anyway. It’s just a snapshot of where we were at a certain point in time. For us, the studio itself is not the instrument. It’s the musicians and their instruments that are ultimately important.”