How to classify NYC ultra-underground outfit Khanate? Even bassist/production guru James Plotkin has to hedge a bit. “It sort of, by default, belongs to this doom-metal genre, but Khanate’s sort of outside of the boundaries of that,” he says by phone from Hoboken, New Jersey. “It’s not like our intention is to make this incredibly ugly music,” he asserts with a small laugh. “It’s just sort of the way it happens.”
If your standards of musical beauty are confined to things like melodies, beats, tracks that are less than 10 minutes long and lyrics that aren’t about sharp objects and their application to human flesh, bone, and other tissues, Khanate indeed is ugly. And slow. God, is it slow. As Julian Cope once said of Khanate, “Slow is the new loud.” ‰
And if the molten-aluminum sheets of feedback and magma waves of minor-seventh power chords aren’t dark enough for you, Khanate’s poor vocalist shrieks like he’s being sacrificed, a centimeter at a time, to some particularly grim, bloodthirsty power (Cthulhu? Huitzilopochtli? Tom DeLay?)
Actually, singer Alan Dubin is still very much alive. Khanate’s equipment has fared less well, and the root of the problem is, well, the root: Plotkin and guitarist Stephen O’Malley tune their instruments down to A-flat. “It’s ridiculous,” Plotkin admits. “The thickness of the strings I have to use, they don’t even fit in the nut on my bass. I have to actually carve out extra nut space.” The lack of string tension forces them to use aluminum necks: O’Malley wields a Travis Bean, Plotkin a Kramer bass.
Think they like a little bit of gain to go with all that low-end? Mmm-hmm. O’Malley uses three vintage Sunn Model-T 100-watt heads blasting through various and sundry 4x12 cabinets. Plotkin favors an Ampeg SVT head with an 8x10 cab and a Sunn Beta-Bass with a 2x15; both heads pump out between 120 – 150 watts.
That is, when they pump out anything at all. “I blew up four different heads last year,” Plotkin laments. “I think the subharmonics generated from the aluminum in my bass pushed the power transformers way too much.” He says he’s been using a compressor pedal for the past six months, but doesn’t like the way it “colors the tone.” And even with such precautions, Plotkin declares, “Gear failure plagues no less than 90 percent of our performances and rehearsals.”
So how does one even begin to tame such a sonic beast in a studio setting? Especially when one’s budget is, effectively, nothing? Plotkin asserts that Khanate hasn’t spent more than $1,300 on any of its three existing records, or the fourth that’s in the works. How does he do it? By summoning his own relentless, obsessive DIY spirit (or demon, whatever).
The 34-year-old Bergen County, New Jersey, native first practiced the high art of low-tech recording with his trusty TASCAM PortaONE 4-track. He later graduated to a Yamaha 8-track cassette machine, with which he recorded piles of his own stuff and other acts for various indie labels.
He says basically everything he’s recorded since 1998 or so has been done with the Steinberg Cubase program on his laptop. In addition to his own projects he’s worked with numerous other hard-’n’-heavy underground acts; his remix clients have included Isis, Pelican, and Hawkwind. (You heard me right.) When he joined up with O’Malley to form Khanate, he learned just how tough things can be when low-end meets low-budget.
The main challenge when recording digitally is keeping a warm sound. For Things Viral, Khanate’s 2003 release on Southern Lord, the band rented out a loft in Brooklyn. “We figured that we’d use a lot of the room acoustics to get most of the sound,” Plotkin recounts. “There’s not really too much close miking going on with that record.”
But the mics weren’t the problem. It was what the mics were connected to.
“We tried using a laptop, and the low frequencies, the vibrations in the floor, would just shake the crap out of the hard drive,” he recounts. Undaunted, they borrowed a Roland 16-track digital mobile recorder for basic tracking (only four tracks for drums — two overheads, kick and snare), but even that machine balked at the low end.
“By the end of the recording, we had an empty speaker cabinet in the middle of this loft, with like three layers of foam, and another layer of foam wrapped around the machine, because every time we’d start recording, within a minute, there’d be an error and the machine would stop.”
Even with all that tube gear, the recorded product still sounds thin once it’s digitized. Plotkin says he uses “the warmest, most gritty tube emulators and compressors I can find” to fix that problem. These days, he likes the PSP Vintage Warmer.
For the diamond-drill shrieks of Dubin’s vocals, the singer uses a Joemeek BC3 Half-Space Compressor on his vocals before they hit the soundcard. Then Plotkin does his flea-market mad-scientist thing. “I like to build these sonic walls of voice,” he says. “It’s basically a combination of delays and reverbs.”
The final mixing and mastering processes test the limits of Plotkin’s patience — and those of his CPU. Sometimes he even mixes songs in sections, and then reassembles them in the mastering process. “It’s walking a tightrope between getting the sound you want and having your computer run smoothly so you can actually finish a project,” he says.
And yet, after this spit-and-baling-wire process, the final product may sound ugly to those without a high tolerance for dissonance, but it sure don’t sound cheap. And still yet it dissatisfies. Because when Plotkin stepped outside of his idiosyncratic approach, he’s been less than pleased with the results. For the fourth Khanate record, due out in the fall on Hydra Head records, “We went to 2-inch tape, and bounced everything down to a hard drive. And the sound isn’t really as good as I had hoped. The guitar and bass sound dull and lifeless. It may have to do with the miking techniques the engineer used, but it could also be that he didn’t bias the tape machine properly.”
He’s massaging the tracks to get a better sound in the mixing process, but is irked that such steps are necessary. “It seems ironic that I have to use tape- and tube-emulation plug-ins to get the sound we want considering both tubes and tape were used in the process,” he grouses.
“I can honestly say that it would have been better if we had stuck with our DIY approach.”