The F$%&ing Champs

There really isn’t another band like The F$%&ing Champs. For years the San Francisco-based trio have been a metallic force to be reckoned with, unabashedly channeling bands such as Iron Maiden, Queen, and Led Zeppelin with an idiosyncratic slant that has attracted scores of metalheads and indie rock fans alike. Their sixth release, aptly titled VI, is a collection of 12 gems featuring shredding guitars, bombastic drums, and once again leaving the bass and vocals to other, needier bands. We talked with newest recruit and guitarist Phil Manley to discuss the precision and dedication behind the recording of VI, which further justifies The Champs’ immodest moniker.
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EQ: Is there a lot of time spent in pre-production before you enter the studio?
Phil Manley: We don’t really go into the studio without everything already mapped out. There are some more prog/psychedelic sounds on this record and we’re using more super-bright guitar — for instance I used a [Fender] Telecaster — but The Champs sound is very dialed in, and it’s a lot of takes. I actually developed a shoulder problem from tracking. We spend a lot of time punching in because it’ll be just not exactly right. We obsess over tracking.

EQ: How long did it take to record VI?
PM:
We did the record in four or five tracking sessions, and we had a pretty limited palette we’d work with: two Marshalls and a custom head, which is essentially a Marshall copy. Also, one thing that helps as we don’t use a bass player is that we have straight 4 x 12 cabinets, not slanted, because straight cabs have more low frequency resonance. You’re building up low end in guitars where they usually wouldn’t have much.

EQ: What about the mic setup for guitars?
PM: We had assorted mics, but used a lot of [Shure] SM57s, which give great high end, and a Beyerdynamic M160. We also tried a Coles 438 and a BLUE Bottle mic. Sometimes we’d use isolation headphones to figure out where to put the mics.

EQ: Could you explain that process a bit more?
PM: When setting up guitar sounds with someone in the control room, you can crank the head, and the person wearing the headphones can move the mic around. There is so much isolation, you can hold it in front of a Marshall stack, and actually hear where the mic sounds the best. They’re really amazing, but they’re not like those Bose noise-canceling headphones, which I think use phase reversal. These are like what you would wear at the shooting range.

EQ: What were you using for the drums?
PM: We have an old Gretsch kit, and a Ludwig stainless steel drum set, that is this actual steel, super loud set. We work with both kits with different preamps. There were [TDL Technology] 421s on the toms, [Summit Audio] 221s for overheads. It was mono overhead, but Tim uses a lot of outboard mic pres. . . .

EQ: And the kick?
PM: We did something weird for the kick drum by plugging a mic into a compressor, and completely ignoring a mic pre. Some ’70s compressors have so much gain that when you’re miking a source as loud as a kick drum, you don’t need a mic pre; so we just used an 1176, jacked the gain up to the threshold, and that’s the kick drum sound.

EQ: Any other little oddities in the recording process?
PM: Tim also sometimes will put two valve mics, which usually have high outputs, into an EQ, and then the EQ out into tape. He sometimes goes straight from the tube mic directly to the tape machine. If it’s a loud enough sound source like a bass or kick drum, it’s pretty much the exact sound from the studio.

EQ: Do you like working in a band that is totally self-sufficient in terms of production?
PM: Well, I owned a studio but realized I was spending too much time working at the studio instead of writing music. It’s a delicate balance. Tim does well, but occasionally we’d have friends come in as tape ops, because I hate when you want to record and someone has to run in and turn on the tape machine, then run back out, get their headphones back on, and then start playing. Especially because that would usually be me [laughs]. So I really do like it, but it’s a big help to have a tape op.

Check out video from the The F$%&ing Champs sessions for VI here.