Read interview outtakes.
In February 2013, The New Yorker broke the story that Phoenix had purchased the Harrison 4032 console customized for and used in Westlake Studios by Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien during the 1982 mixing of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Clayton Rose, the owner of a recording studio in California, had been trying to sell it for an exorbitant sum, but after much haggling/haranguing, Phoenix eventually purchased it (to install in Paris) for $17,000 (plus $7,000 in transatlantic shipping fees). More was made of the console’s role in recording the band’s latest full-length, Bankrupt!, than perhaps was appropriate, according to producer Philippe Zdar, who reveals “the Thriller” was more an intermittent processing module than an integral component.
Still, the silken EQs helped edge certain competing frequencies and compounding artifacts away from the fundamental clarity. The Thriller helped fill in the interstitial gap between Bankrupt!’s brazenly extroverted dynamics and its stylish melodies, fusing together Phoenix’s Gallic synth-rock eccentricities and the band’s unabashed love of American power-pop gloss. Here, Phoenix guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai, along with Zdar, reveal the importance of curiosity and opening up both your musical and mental filters, how quality should be judged by the end result, not the perceived value, and what they feel about the talisman-console they are painstakingly rehabilitating.
Brancowitz: We love to read about the ways others have discovered their techniques, so maybe we can use them . . . or abuse them. That’s what happened specifically for the Harrison. I was looking for specific information about one song. I can’t remember which one . . . but the information was very technical. Maybe I wanted to know what preamp they used to record the drums.
Mazzalai: Or the bass.
Brancowitz: Yes, the bass . . . maybe some DI techniques . . . we have a studio where we can plug and re-plug things, and we have this particular sound in mind, so we do our research when we want a tone. In this case it led us to knowing this particular console was for sale; by chance I saw that in a geek forum or something. It was a very old topic. Like one or two years before. Someone is selling the console for $1 million or something like that, and then going down I could see the people arguing, the price dropping . . . then at the very end of all the things I saw it was still on sale and I understood. Everything looked so fake, like a scam, but I thought there’s only one possibility when something is this impossible: It’s true and he’s just totally crazy. And actually that was the case. It was funny. I wish you could see the ad . . . it should be archived. Every word has its font and its color [viewable here: http://cmi-records.com/thriller_pics].
Mazzalai: Me, I couldn’t believe it was true. It had to be a joke. We asked all the engineers at Westlake, and they did the research, so we knew it was the real one for sure. It was a funny quest.
Brancowitz: So we had it shipped to us, to deliver the color of excellence! [Laughs.] We look for these colors at the top and the bottom. I had a very cheap keyboard I bought on the first day of recording at a pawnshop for $30. It was a toy keyboard, not too many keys but very good sounds, and I paid someone to MIDIfy it so we could play more complex parts on it. That cost much, much more than the keyboard itself. We always work with those contrasts. Often we know it’s the right track because we’re on the verge of total stupidity.
Mazzalai: For example, at one point we took the mic off the toms and put it in front of the guitar amp; it was just the two of us and we were very happy with the sound because of the Thriller. That’s when we discovered its secret.
Brancowitz: This console, we knew it had been modified with very weird specs by Harrison for Bruce Swedien, so we knew it had a little extra ingredient of magic. And actually it does sound magical. It looks normal, but you can pull a knob and suddenly it reaches very high frequencies, it goes up to 40kHz or something crazy, just for dolphins. But it creates a little … the sound of an angel whispering, you know? It sounds really good.
Zdar: There’s this little button on the EQ that goes into this air, and we loved it. And we are trying to restore another channel every week to take it back to exactly what it was like. When we got it, we had a lot to repair, so we only got a few channels in the end. It will play a more central spot in the next album. We only had four well-maintained channels in the last six months, so we recorded some stuff and used them in the mixing. We did discover the EQs are incredible, but it was only one small aspect of the process. We used it the same way we did a Pultec [outboard EQ] or a Neve [channel strip]. Mostly people who came in the studio couldn’t help but touch it; some people even kissed it. It was more this mythical charm thing because we all love Michael.
One day I read a book about [Irish-born British figurative painter] Francis Bacon talking to a French journalist, and I discovered that every artist in the world went through the same phases of frustration and discovery. And that day I accepted myself completely, when I saw everyone has part of what they do that comes along through happy accidents. When I read [Ernest Hemingway’s] A Movable Feast I found out he was always thinking about how and where his style would develop, how to cut parts out and find the best place to start . . . it’s so good to read about artists in the recording, writing, painting process; you discover analogies everywhere and it gives you lots of truth to work with.
So we got the Harrison desk, and we can find ways to use the EQs and the high-pass filter and we can think about how Michael has done it, too, but we’re not trying to emulate Thriller; we’re just trying to follow in a history of free experimentation. Reading about other people’s techniques shows you there’s such a rainbow of music, so many ways to color and enrich the sound, but you have to remember that the first person who did them was putting themselves in this not safe territory and having the guts to try anything – that is what you want to copy, not just what is proven to work.