For Venus Hum's third full-length release, The Colors in the Wheel (Nettwerk/Mono-Fi, 2006), the electronic-pop trio eschewed synthesizers in favor of organic instruments such as acoustic guitar, xylophone, and, well, a Wurlitzer. Okay, so they didn't totally unplug, but they did venture into new territory by exploring traditional sounds in untraditional ways.
The band recorded the album after a tumultuous three-year hiatus that started not long after losing both their MCA Records deal in the United States and their overseas deal with Arista. The saga began with the release of Venus Hum's debut, Big Beautiful Sky (MCA), in 2003. The CD was well received and the band toured with Blue Man Group. But during the tour, lead vocalist Annette Strean developed nodes on her vocal chords and was in nearly constant pain. The band was forced to take an extended break.
During the sabbatical, multi-instrumentalist Tony Miracle moved to Los Angeles and then Cincinnati, and during that time assembled about 30 song ideas. In Nashville, Strean healed and retrained her voice and wrote some of her most revealing lyrics. With keyboardist-programmer Kip Kubin adding his own sonic ideas, the trio collaborated by swapping MP3s. They also wrote another batch of songs together at Strean's home. “The songs came really quickly because there was this spurt of energy that happens when we're all together,” says Miracle.
Miracle's no-synth idea came much to the chagrin of Kubin. “When we decided to throw the analog synths out the window, basically all Kip had left was a Wurlitzer and a borrowed xylophone,” Miracle says. “He thought about the tracks differently than if he had his Oberheim Xpander, which is like his right brain. When you limit your choices, you instantly start thinking of different ways to use the instrument.”
On “Genevieve's Wheel,” Kubin set to work using Ableton Live on his Apple G4 PowerBook, leaving his ARP 2600 and other analog synths alone. Instead, he searched for man-made alternatives. Miracle says, “He put the mic next to his wife's wedding dress hanging in the closet and recorded the cellophane hitting the beads on top. It sounds like some exotic shaker-type instrument, but it's just Kip fondling this wedding dress!”
The Colors in the Wheel/Venus Hum
Miracle — who used Pro Tools, Live, and Logic Pro during the production of the CD — built one of the tracks using sounds gleaned in various ways from an acoustic guitar. “Hitting the back of the guitar and pitching it down in the computer became the kick or bass drum. Squeaks from the strings used in tiny fragments became the hi-hat, cymbal, strings, or an airy synth sound.”
The vocals were tracked at Strean's home studio with a G4 laptop and a Digidesign Digi 002, as well as at the studios of engineer friends Russ Long and Jamie Kenney. “I'm able to work out the kinks myself and lay down really succinct vocal takes,” Strean says. The recording chain was typically a Blue Kiwi or Shure SM58 through an Amek 9098 mic pre and a Tube Tech compressor.
The band likens their new CD to designer Todd Oldham's HGTV program Handmade Modern, where viewers learn how to make cutting-edge crafts from everyday objects. “That's what this record is about,” says Miracle. “We wanted to make a really modern electronic-pop record, but out of homemade instruments. It's hands-on and very DIY.”
Home base: Nashville, Tennessee
Sequencers used: Ableton Live, Digidesign Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro
Sound-design sources: wedding dress, acoustic guitar