From Laptop Jockey to Bona Fide Soul Man, Jamie Lidell Knows How to Work a Room

“I was bored making electronic music,” says Jamie Lidell when asked what prompted his radical switch from erratic electronica experimentation to the tune-oriented soul/funk of last year’s Multiply. “I had been making it exclusively for years. I got asked to do a remix for Matthew Herbert. I listened to the hook line of the tune, and I thought, ‘That sounds like a Motown hook, but without the soul.’”

Lidell added the missing Detroit grease, and said, “I can do this. In fact, I love doing this.”

Herbert’s hook inspired the flood of funk that formed Multiply, and informed the sheer vintage dance-party joy of Lidell’s follow-up, the newly released Jim [Warp]. Imagine Motown’s finest getting down with Al Green at a private party hosted by Prince and you’re halfway there. But for all of the pop leanings evident on Jim—and as far removed from Lidell’s previous experimental (or, as he puts it, “Mental”) music as the album may be—Lidell still manages to inject enough headiness on the album to make it a true exploration of spacious sounds.

“I find making space in my music staggeringly complex and frustrating,” says Lidell. “Owning some old plate reverbs and a ’70s AKG BX-10 spring reverb doesn’t hurt, but the trick is in first learning to track with an ear for how an instrument sits in the natural space of a recording—rather than relying on EQ cuts and boosts, or really sweet hardware reverbs to compensate for an overtly tight sounding source.”

Using Jim’s opening track, “Another Day,” as an example, Lidell says he first tried using a trashy-sounding drum kit, in hopes that it would complement the sounds he was getting from recording a cheap upright piano in mono. Unhappy with the sound of the piano, he was forced to re-record the instrument, resulting in a brighter, more sparkly-sounding track.

“Then, we brought in the backup singers, and they were filling the same sonic space as the drums,” he says.

Worried that the charmingly lo-fi drums would no longer fit comfortably in the mix, Lidell opted for recording a series of handclaps in the live room, pulling the faders way back on the initial drum tracks, and giving the lion’s share of the mix over to the hands of his performers.

“Once the singers start clapping, you can hear the room so clearly,” he explains. “And the sound of the room created all the ambience I needed to balance the song.”

Though creating an interesting, yet natural, sense of space in his music has been something of a trademark since his electronica days, Lidell wants to experiment with ambience even more. Unfortunately, it’s more a question of budget than anything else. What he longs for is the sound of records made in legendary—and prohibitively expensive—studios such as Ocean Way in Los Angeles, or New York’s Columbia 30th St. Studios with its 100-foot ceilings.

“That is the sound that I dream about,” he says. “A sound where there are virtually no walls. While Jim was recorded mostly in bedrooms and sheds, the joy of those rooms is that they are so big you don’t feel the reflections off the walls, because they are so far away. The instruments are just floating in space. That is the ultimate sound.”

Still, for a largely bedroom production, Lidell manages some serious ambience on Jim—especially in the vocal department. For “Another Day,” he first recorded the vocals in a long corridor to get a natural hall reverb, and then attempted to give the tracks his trademark spacey-ness by processing them through his BX-10.

“I wasn’t into it though,” he confesses. “It made the vocals sound too retro. So we moved locations, settling on an attic in Berlin that was really live sounding. It added a lot of vitality to the tracks, and we didn’t have to add any extra reverb after we got the voice into the right room.”

The moral of this story: Get your room sound right first, and the rest will follow.