The music isn't the only segment of West Indian Girl that's cloaked in mystery. A shroud of flighty detachment looms over other aspects of the California dream-pop outfit as well. Comfortably numb co-founder/lead singer/guitarist/producer Robert James, for example, seems so out of the loop that he cannot place the exact moment when they shuffled off from their former home at Astralwerks Records, or even when they first landed there. He likes it that way.
“I'm not exactly sure how we ended up on Astralwerks,” James confesses. “I usually keep my head in the studio. As far as I know, someone heard some demo and liked it. [And] personally, I don't remember telling Astralwerks goodbye. Maybe they think we're still on their label. I'll wait and see if I still get an X-mas gift. They have nice ashtrays.”
These days, the six-piece West Indian Girl fires up their stable of analog synths and jangly guitars for film/music distributor and label Milan Records. Their just-released sophomore LP, 4th & Wall is logically rife with head-in-the-clouds moments, as trebly lead-guitar licks, often coded in waves of delay, trickle overtop numerous layers of keyboard tracks. James and bass player Francis Ten shouldered these stirring elements on the band's self-titled debut album (Astralwerks, 2004), when the two gents were West Indian Girl's sole members. Even then, the songs were dense psych-rockers, with doses of vocal harmonies and electronic augmentation filling out light, whimsical bridges.
With 4th & Wall, there have been a few changes and additions. Four more full-time members are now playing synths, singing, playing percussion and contributing to the songwriting process since the last go-round.
“The collaboration process is ever-changing,” says James of the time spent in the band's studio. “A seed of a song might start from anywhere — a keyboard loop, a drum beat — as long as there's an inspiration. If the initial inspiration is strong, I start to build the song with whoever happens to be in the studio. That process can span days, years or decades. There are seeds I've been working on since 2001. I have four hard discs filled up with ideas. Most of them sound like they come from another planet.”
Some of the rough outlines of 4th & Wall's stoned pocket symphonies coincide with those that made it to the development stage of the band's eponymous Astralwerks effort. Perhaps “What Are You Afraid of?” from West Indian Girl's early days might have fit snugly in a slot on 4th & Wall with its long-trailing delays from the guitar, vocal effects and singer/percussionist Mariqueen Maandig's calming pipes meeting James' coded verses at the chorus. However, the new album's finished lot, although still quite psychedelic-sounding and lending well to more summer-day-field-party videos, showcases a certain “finished” quality that evidently takes precedence in the studio. Some of the ideas that eventually made it to the first record's pressing plant still sounded like, well, ideas.
The second track on 4th & Wall is called “Sofia,” and it's one of the album's most elaborate and blissed-out arrangements. Piano plinks are pushed far off into the left channel, and there's an arpeggiated Pete Townsend-esque sequencer workout happening at the bridge over choral churchy backups. All that goes down before the song's heavily medicated coda comes into play: It's a grandiose finish, fit with soloing guitars, Maandig's overpowering birdsong and some '80s-sounding synth strings (but in an Erasure way, not a sucky Tiffany way) that were played on a Crumar Orchestrator, which James says needs no magic edits and “just sounds good on its own.”
“The ‘Sofia’ seed was brought in by Nathan [Van Hala] on Fender Rhodes and nursed by all of us,” explains James about one of the band's keyboardists, the other being Amy White. “I took to it right away and spent a lot of fun hours experimenting in the studio. We recorded the initial model of bass/drums and Rhodes, and from then on it was a free-for-all. We dubbed various Moog themes, guitars, strings, flutes and, of course, vocals.”
IN THE VOCAL BOOTH
James has no specific go-to method for recording the band's rich collection of vocal tracks. “Blue Wave,” which plays with an adolescent Beach Boys-esque “Catch a Wave” theme, finds James offering generous harmonies that mimic the synth and guitar licks on the pre-chorus with his vocal. At times, there are so many voices in the mix, it sounds as if a crowd is huddled around one of his Neumann TLM 103 studio microphones.
In contrast, the bare, comparatively folksy “Back to You,” with its Byrds-y strums and a persistent, extraneous floor tom that complements drummer Mark Lewis' contributions, indicates a sense of restraint on the number of vocal tracks used. James is a resolute enthusiast of his Universal Audio hardware and uses the Teletronix LA-2A leveling amplifier, the 1176, the 2-1176 and 6176 components.
“Every song is different,” he says of recording West Indian Girl's vocals. “I record multiple takes. One song, I might use one track as the primary and one as the shadow, with the shadow being six to eight decibels quieter. On another song, I might have two vocals completely doubled, equal in volume. It depends on the song. One thing is for sure: I track all vocals to tape with compression. I preamp with Universal Audio's 6176 and compress with an LA-2A.”
He's careful not to burden the tracks with too much editing, though. “When the production overcomes the essence of the song, you've gone too far,” James says. “As producer, you have to ask, ‘What is the point of this song? The meaning?' Sure, it sounds cool to have a multitap echo on the verse vocal, but is it getting in the way of the words, the content?”
SOMETHING YOU CAN FEEL
Aside from the Crumar Orchestrator and the Rhodes, the other synths at work on “Sofia” include the Moog Prodigy. Its warm surges and wormy leads don't serve as muddy bass lines here; they playfully flicker, and the entry of the track's verses is as prominent as the track's picked electric guitars. Van Hala's Prodigy lines gurgle and squirm beneath James' beckoning (“If you see a light just off the road, a line of footsteps in the snow, don't stop/You're almost home”). Because built-in sequencers aren't a part of the aesthetically simplistic Moog Prodigy, James explains that no preset arpeggiations were used for “Sofia”; Van Hala played them himself. “The Moog Prodigy is my baby,” James coos. “She has a beautiful melodic voice as well as a dark growl. She can create tranced-out rhythms that are soft or hard. She loves delay, chorus, distortion or any combination of effects.”
The bare, lurching funk parts on another 4th & Wall track called “Up the Coast” also needed glassy analog stutters tucked deep into each channel, and those were played on the Roland JP-8000 before they were fed into an MXR Flanger/Doubler pedal and reversed. With its multitude of front-panel knobs and sliders, the JP-8000 makes up James' mind in the hardware-versus-software debate.
“I like the visceral,” he says of the distinctive experience gained when using hardware synths. “Touching knobs, keys. It's more of a physical act. That being said, I do use Reason and Ableton on occasion, too.”
Sporadic loops make it into the base of West Indian Girl's works, and as James is currently running Sonar 2 on his Carillon computer system, that's where he'll chop up samples. “Indian Ocean” is a lush downtempo romp that's blanketed with breathy backups and plenty of bleeps over the trailing guitar leads. A brief, swelling sample launches the track, but James explains that in a live setting, the band will have little trouble working around a loop like this one because they're not always tempo-dependent. For the samples used that call for a steady beat backing it up so that the band can maneuver around it, the loop will be loaded into the Akai MPC4000, and James will create a sequence. Onstage, drummer Mark Lewis will be the only one to hear the sequence click, and the rest of West Indian Girl will graciously follow his lead.
More Moog lines peer in and out of “Indian Ocean,” and the prog house-inspired “Lost Children” also tacks on its fair share of twitchy Prodigy sonics. Maandig and James' vocals battle a steady rush of atmospherics and new-wave synth washes on “Lost Children,” while its marching beat begs for a spot in a DJ set between deep house and Brit pop on some drunken Saturday night.
“The kick [on ‘Indian Ocean’] is in some Reason patch,” James says. “The beats and chirps on the track's intro portion are collected samples. Some are off the Moog Source. Mark plays with the MPC, which feeds him a tempo via a click. The samples can be sequenced or triggered by pads live. His kick and snare are also capable of triggering samples. Live is always going to be a little different.”
To get the perfect echo effect on “Sofia,” the band used a Gibson Echoplex. Hopefully, its workable 198 seconds of built-in memory time lend well to the track's shoegaze-y coda in a live setting; right before everything drops out for the soothing James-and-Rhodes duet, the band is pushing the Prodigy accompaniment, Maandig's vocals and bleary guitar licks into the mix all at once. It sounds as if the Echoplex is working overtime, and according to James, that's twice as much as the guys at Gibson do.
“I love the Echoplex, but the internal preset function never works,” he says. ”I think there's a flaw in the design. Even Gibson tech support doesn't know how to use the thing correctly.”
WRONG SIDE OF THE TRACKS
James' extraterrestrial blueprints are fleshed out in the workspace that gave West Indian Girl its new album title. It's seemingly all about names with this band. To begin with, the band name hails from an early-'60s strain of acid known for a better-than-average high. This time around, the album title refers to the warehouse location that the band calls its own. James' Carillon computer — “Great computer, [again], not so great support. They never return e-mails,” he says — sits alongside an Oberheim drum machine, Fender and Gibson guitars and their small assortment of synths in a hideaway studio. The bat-cave location happens to be in a dimly lit section of town that's frequented more often by homeless people than anyone else. But the location sometimes works to James' benefit.
In his pleasantly airy demeanor, West Indian Girl's multitasking gearhead explains a studio trick that hints at a treacherous danger for those huddled below, on the dark, damp L.A. streets beneath the studio.
“I'm very much into mic placement,” he says. “I'll spend hours trying to get a specific tone. Putting a mic in the outside corridor 30 feet away with heavy compression might be a little unusual, but not really. One time I dropped a cymbal out of a three-story window and recorded it from the street. You could hear a ‘whoosh'' sound as it came down, and the final cracking upon the pavement. I reversed it in the mixdown and used it as an effect. Pretty cool.”
Sketchy neighborhoods aside, something about James' occasional experiments says that the other members of West Indian Girl might be safer indoors.
WALL OF SOUND
Computer, DAW, recording hardware, interfaces
(3) Aardvark Q10 interfaces
Cakewalk Sonar 2
Carillon Audio Systems computer
Universal Audio 2192 interface
Allen & Heath GL2200, GL2800
Soundcraft 32 Spirit
Mics, preamps, compressors, effects
Altec 438c compressor
Avalon Vt-747sp compressor/EQ, U5 preamp
Eventide Eclipse Harmonizer effects processor
Fat Man 2 preamp/compressor
Joemeek SC2.2 compressor
Manley Variable Mu compressor
Millennia TCL-2 compressor
Neumann TLM 103 mic
Sennheiser e906 mic
Shure SM57, SM81, Beta 58 mics
Trident 4T preamp
Urei 1176LN, 2-116LN, LA2A compressors and 2-610 preamp
Sampler, drum machine
Oberheim DX drum machine
ARP Odyssey white-top synth
Crumar Orchestrator synth
Fender DeVille, '63 Concert,
'71 Super Reverb and '81 Twin
amplifiers; Jaguar, Stratocaster
and Telecaster guitars; Rhodes
piano; and Precision Jazz bass
Gibson Les Paul guitars
Hammond M3 organ
Korg MS2000, Poly Ensemble
Martin DCX1E Dreadnought
Cutaway Acoustic-Electric guitar
Moog Source, Prodigy, Satellite,
Little Phatty synths; Theremin
Roland JP-8000 synth
Taylor 710 Brazilian Rosewood
Yamaha CS70M, CS1X synths;
E1010 Analog Delay rack effects
Boss DD-3 digital delay
Electrix Filter Queen
Electro-Harmonix Big Muff distortion
Gibson Echoplex effects unit
Lexicon PCM60, PCM70,
Line 6 Delay
MXR Flanger/Doubler, Phase
Sony D7 delay, R7 reverb
Tapco 4400 spring reverb
T-Rex Replica analog delay pedal
Yamaha Rev7 reverb processor
Alesis Monitor One speakers
Beyerdynamic DT770 headphones
Event Electronics 20/20 subwoofer