Jason Holstrom Goes Organic for his Hawaiian-themed Thieves of Kailua

Guitarist, producer, and United State of Electronica contributor Jason Holstrom was mesmerized enough by a trip to Hawaii a few years back that the island’s mystique inspired his solo debut, Thieves of Kailua. In fact, the island vibe permeated his Seattle bedroom studio so aggressively, that Holstrom completely dropped all reliance on electronic instruments, samples, and loops. As a result, the album is a seductive mix of naturalistic elements, from vocal harmonies, slide and classical guitar, horn parts, and even a ukulele. As far from the propulsive chatter of U.S.E.’s brand of electronica as a steel factory is from a babbling brook, Kailua’s beautiful and organic soundscapes evoke all the comfort and bliss of a tropical paradise.

You handled all the instrumentation on the new album. Can you walk me through the recording process?
The palette of sounds on the album was decided by what was available to me in the form of physical instruments at the time. I didn’t want to use any samples or virtual instruments. I wanted the album to be totally organic. So I stuck with what was in my room: ukuleles, nylon-string guitars, bass, drums, sax, and my voice. Each track began with either ukulele or nylon-string guitar. I would essentially track some rough ukulele chords through an MBox into Pro Tools LE 5.2 until I got these huge, chiming loops, and then I’d lay guitar, bass, sax, percussion, and, finally, vocals as I developed the uke pieces into proper songs.

How did you record the ukulele and nylon-string guitars?
I used an Oktava MK012 for all the strings. The uke was a little mahogany Martin that has a really woody midrange. I found it sounded best if I positioned the mic away from the soundhole at around the tenth fret. This helped mellow out the low mids. For the guitars, I found that setting the MK012 about six inches back from the body of the instrument, and pointing directly at the soundhole, produced the fullest sound.

This was all done in your bedroom, right?
Yes. It was a very much “roll out of bed and hit record” kind of studio [laughs]. In fact, my bedroom window served as what I call “the nature booth.” I’d open it when I would record vocals, and just let the natural outside sounds of the birds—which you can really hear on “Hula-Bye”—leak onto the tracks. When I needed some rain sounds to pepper a track, I’d just open that window and record the rain!

The room the record was made in, while limited, really added to the sound of the record. The queen-sized bed helped deaden the space, but recording surrounded by glass and hardwood floors made for a really bright, fast reverb.

Tell me about the percussive elements of the album. I don’t hear a single snare.
I didn’t want rock drums. I wanted a tribal feel to the percussion, so there’s no snare on the album. I just played the kick as if it was a snare. I’d position it head-size up, and play it with two mallets—which is why a lot of the bass-drum parts are pretty fast-moving. Due to the speed, I needed a real tight kick-drum sound, so I would set the MK012 about a foot off the head. That provided a tight attack that really cut through in the mixes.

I’d often track the kick for four bars, and then do some looping on the grid to give the percussion a really tight foundation. After that, I would play a floor tom by striking the head with maracas. Playing a pounding floor-tom beat with maracas makes it sound like there are three people drumming in the room, and it also makes sure your shakers and floor toms are in time. These were miked the same as the kick. I would usually double track the floor-tom parts to give that stereo “super-percussion” sound, and pan each track hard left and hard right.

You used the MK012 mic on quite a few sources.
I only used two mics on the entire album. All the vocals were tracked through the large-diaphragm Oktava MK319 condenser, and everything else was recorded with the small-diaphragm Oktava MK012 condenser. The bass was sent directly into the MBox.

Elaborate on your EQ tricks.
I used to be in the habit of slicing the entire low end out of most sources. I found the MBox preamps tend to need a little low-end clean up, and cutting the lows left room for the other tracks without killing clarity. With such busy and rich mixes—and such limited outboard gear—I really had to be creative with my EQ to get good-sounding vocals. I’d track the higher vocal parts really close to the mic, and that would leave me with tons of mud to be cleared out—as well as tons of breathy hisses—so I got pretty aggressive with the EQ on some of the tracks. Plus, the Digidesign Tel-Ray Variable Delay plug-in that I was using on the vocals really brought up the lower-mid frequencies, so I had to cut there, and then brighten them up afterwards.

As there are track limitations to Pro Tools LE, how did you approach the mix?
I only had 24 tracks, so I’d max out one session with all the instrumentation, and then bounce that into a separate session for all of the vocals. Then, I’d do the final mix from the vocal session. That was a great way to max-out the track count, and also focus on recording vocals as the mix played back. And if I really needed to turn the instruments up, I could go back into the instrumentation session, and bounce it right in again. It was pretty easy, actually.

You’re not making the analog purist crowd very happy right now.
If the mic is placed well next to a good instrument that’s in the hands of a good musician, you can EQ your way through the rest [laughs].