Urban Camp Out: A Camp Undergoes a Musical Metamorphosis

Formed by The Cardigans’ Nina Persson, A Camp began as a “side project” in which the Swedish siren sought to explore new musical territory—the first release being 2001’s eponymous alt-countrified pop debut produced by Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse.
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Fast-forward to 2008 in Manhattan’s Stratosphere Studios, where Persson and her felicitous cohorts— including her husband, film composer and Shudder To Think guitarist Nathan Larson, and Atomic Swing founder and musician/songwriter Niklas Frisk—have hatched a whole new set of songs.

Frisk is overdubbing an ambient guitar part—with undulations courtesy of the Fulltone Tube Tape Echo—for “Golden Teeth and Silver Metals.” This is the first of a trio of generously effected overdubs the band will add to three different songs during the hour EQ crashed the session. They are nine songs into the album, tentatively entitled Colonia, which they’ve produced in studios around NYC in threeday session blocks. According to Persson, A Camp works in highly collaborative songwriting sessions prior to entering the studio. “We get together and put our ideas out there, and then we all help put the song together like a puzzle,” she says. “When a song starts to have some shape, I’ll record it on a cassette deck. Then, we’ll book three days at a commercial studio, and work on entire songs at a time.”

Though Larson has a rehearsal/ recording studio in Brooklyn, where A Camp managed to do a lot of the overdubs for the new album, the band purposely avoids doing any extensive pre-production. “The idea is that the recordings be very performancebased,” Larson notes. “We come into the studio, and there’s a certain spontaneity to the sessions—everyone’s excited, and we’re building the songs as we go.”

After the Americana-inspired A Camp, and Persson’s subsequent work with The Cardigans, A Camp adapted its sound somewhat to its environment. Frisk calls this second production A Camp’s “urban album,” as opposed to the first, which was written and recorded in rustic retreat. Larson explains: “A Camp had been seen as this Americana act, and it felt a little unnatural to try to recapture that just because it’s how the first record sounded. We wanted to try out some different, odd sounds. For example, there are no rock-and-roll guitar sounds on this album—it’s more string-based. And we are using some really stupid-sounding synths—like Usher and R. Kelly-style bass patches—that would sound out of context in an alt-country record.”

Larson points around the studio at some of the most used instruments and effects on the record: Roland Juno-60 and SH-101 synths, a Prophet-5, an Echoplex and a Roland Space Echo RE-21. “I really like the sounds that are going on in hip-hop,” Larson notes, “especially The Neptunes approach—that really dry, clicky snare-drum thing they do.”

Guided by Voices’ Kevin March contributed live drums to the upcoming A Camp release, which were augmented by signal processing. “In some cases, we’d take the live drums and run them entirely through a pedal—‘Purple Rain’-style, through a flanger, or some cheesy effects pedal,” says Larson. “‘China Town,’ for example, is really pretty, but there’s something slightly Kraut-rock about it. It has this Can-like bass line that sort of loops on and on, and Kevin had done this beautiful brush drum part. We took the click track and ran it through two MoogerFooger pedals—a ringmodulator and a delay—and it became this really wet, obscene-sounding thing. Now, this is the first part you hear, and it runs throughout the song.”

Recording sessions with engineer Geoff Sanoff at Stratosphere, Loho, and Magic Shop in Manhattan—as well as Mission Sound and Larson’s studio in Brooklyn—were about capturing performances, and even technical missteps would provide unique character. Sonic influences included the David Bowie/Brian Eno Berlin trilogy, as well as recordings by the Pretenders and Adam & The Ants—the latter two of which were reference points for live drum sounds. According to Sanoff: “Nathan and I would talk about what drum sound they were after, like before recording ‘Here Are Many Wild Animals,’ we listened to this early Adam & The Ants song with rumbling floor toms, so I had an idea what they were after.”

Sanoff tracked March on drums in a few different studios, with one major miking consistency. “I always used a speaker mic on the kick drum,” he notes. “Either a Yamaha Subkick or an NS-10 mounted on a mic stand. Inside the kick drum, I’d use either a Shure Beta 52 or an AKG D112, and, on the outside, the Subkick or NS10 woofer and a Neumann FET 47.”

Sanoff set up his overheads—either Coles 4038s or Neumann U67s—over the cymbals, equidistant from the snare. “Some people want to keep the snare out of the overheads,” he says, “but I figure if it’s a rock recording, the cymbals will get picked up more than enough no matter what, so I don’t worry about that so much. I try to keep the snare in the center, and everything in its right spatial place.”

In the days following EQ’s visit, A Camp brought in their string “section”— notably Joan Wasser of Joanaspolicewoman, and session cellist Jane Scarpantoni. Both are longtime collaborators who write their own parts. Similarly, multi-instrumentalists John Natchez and Kelly Pratt, both members of Beirut (and the latter also a touring member of Arcade Fire), make up the horn section on the A Camp record.

Sanoff, who has worked quite a bit with smaller ensembles, reveals a technique for getting big-sounding strings. “When you can only afford to hire two or three string players, and you double- or triple-track them in the same room on the same mics, you end up getting this chorusing thing that doesn’t work the way it would on guitar or piano,” he explains. “It doesn’t sound as thick as you want it to sound, so what I do is have the players change seats for the different tracks. With Joan and Jane, I set up four chairs, and each time we’d double or triple something, we’d have them swap chairs. I would also move the mics, so that the sonic build up never quite happens in the same way.”

Sanoff used a U47 on cello and an AKG 414 on violin, as well as a pair of close room mics—B&K 4011s during sessions at Stratosphere, and U67s at Magic Shop. “You’ve got your four mics for each pass, so on any given pass you can mute two mics or keep them,” says Sanoff. “By blending the different mics, and subtly panning, you can make the string sound much bigger than it actually is.”

A few weeks later, A Camp went up to Firehouse 12 Studios in New Haven, CT, to mix the album with Alan Weatherhead. Here, they continued to experiment by sending tracks—drums, vocals, guitar, whatever— into effects pedals. The recordings were done in Pro Tools HD, and Weatherhead is mixing the record to 1/2-inch tape—a medium Larson compares to Magic Shell. “The same way that magical chocolate shell covers your ice cream, analog tape somehow just encloses everything, and brings everything together.”

Weatherhead also mixed the first record, and was given free reign to come up with creative ideas at this stage. Larson describes some of the results: “On this really pretty, very stark acoustic guitar and Wurlitzerbased song, he took the acoustic guitar, and ran it through an [Electro- Harmonix] Memory Man to create this whole sonic space which totally adds something harmonically and texturally to the song. On another song, we wanted to bring a Laurie Andersonstyle vocal in during this ornate string break. We wound up running vocals through a low-pass filter, re-recording them, mixing them in with the original vocals, and heavily Auto-Tuning them so the result sounds very computerized in this really interesting way—not at all like Cher!”