Pretty Lights Web Exclusive:
Interview outtakes with Derek Vincent Smith and engineer Joel Hamilton
(To read the original feature, in which we walk through the 'Color Map of the Sun' sessions, click HERE.)
DVS on how he learned engineering: “I was in a band before Pretty Lights, and the last record we made we went into a studio that was really cool and nice, and we worked with an engineer who, after we had done all the tracking, disappeared! We came in one day and on the dry-erase board it said, ‘I had to leave. I might be back some day!’ It turned out the owner of the studio didn’t know anything about engineering himself, so I said, ‘Let me take the manuals home. I’ll teach myself. I’ll finish our album in your studio.’ After that I got a job there because I knew the gear. It was a pretty good studio, too. They used a RADAR system and had a Sony Oxford [console]. I already knew Pro Tools and Logic. So before Pretty Lights was conceptualized and became somewhat successful, I was working with local bands and learning about recording.”
DVS on working with outside musicians on the project: “Every time I had a new group of musicians come into the studio, I had to try to explain to them what was going on. And every day I got better at it. The first couple of days in Brooklyn, I made sure it was just myself and a couple of friends, so I could get used to it before I started bringing in professional musicians who I would really have to explain everything to. I remember when we were down in New Orleans [at Piety Studios] Rod [Hodges, slide guitarist] was kind of skeptical going into it. It was the biggest session we did, with maybe 15 players, wnd we did what we’d done in Brooklyn—I had them be silent and then went around and told them a simple part to play, even though they were virtuoso musicians. So we did this session that was like 30 minutes, and I was getting all these different combinations of instruments, and when Rod walked out, he said, ‘Holy shit. I feel hypnotized right now! I literally feel like I came out of some tripped out Miles Davis jazz session.’ I had never really thought of it that way, but he was right. I took that as a compliment. When it would finally click it was amazing. I had several of them tell me that not only was it more fun than a normal recording session, but they had learned something about minimalism, about what notes not to play, while improvising.”
DVS on adding echo/reverb live at the sessions: “In Studio G they had a chamber reverb that was literally three stories underground next to the subway. Sometimes you could literally hear the train go by in the reverb. It was awesome!
Hamilton: “It’s dirty and disgusting but somehow it works. My assistant Francisco Bottero and I basically built that together. We tiled the room and then painted the other surfaces with pool paint. It was a crazy brick room with the classic old doorways that had bricked up so you don’t know what Al Capone might have buried behind there. There’s a pair of [AKG] 451s in an X-Y pattern and a big old JBL Eon powered monitor you don’t mind putting in a damp basement. There’s a sump pump down in the corner that comes on every 48 minutes. There’s a leak because there’s a river that runs under Brooklyn right near where my studio is. Everything about it is wrong and disgusting. The Italian family that built the place used to smoke meats down there. Yet it was a big part of the way we worked on this album. We used it quite a bit.”
DVS: “We used a combination of the chamber reverb and these massive homemade plate reverbs they had. In New Orleans, we used big plate boxes as well. We did a ton of experimenting. Like with the brass section, we would mic through a Leslie and then run the Leslie and have a separate aux through the plate and mix those together.
“One other reverb experiment we did that ended up being really cool—and this was Joel’s idea—we actually used a piano chamber as the reverb. With masking tape, we taped down every key that not in the key of the song, so I took a basic chord and left all those strings open and then taped down everything else, so they would not vibrate. Then we put a speaker on top of the piano, ran it through the piano and used the drone of the piano chord, all eight octaves, as a reverb.”
On working with drummer Adam Deitch:
DVS: “I have a long relationship with him and I trust him, and he has so much flavor and soul and swing and bounce. We would communicate about what kind of drum beat I wanted on each break and what drums I wanted him to use—if I wanted him take any toms out, or if I wanted something different. We might hook up a tambourine to the kick drum so it sounded different. It was combination of Adam, myself and the Joel, and that trifecta is what made these drums so legit. He knew what hardware to use. I knew what snare to use and how much reverb to use and things like that and what beat to have the drummer play. And Joel had all these interesting and strange mics and boxes.”
Hamilton: “When I worked with the Black Keys on the Blakroc record, that was all absolutely ‘the wrong mic for the job’ for almost everything, and we did that some on this record, too—non-traditional miking, unless we suddenly wanted something that had a little Steely Dan feeling to it, or whatever. It depended on what we were doing. I might want to have an old Tannoy ribbon mic going through an Ampex tube pre and a [Fairchild] 670—some classic chain like that, that’s sort of James Brown-esque—as aopposed to a more late ’70s sound, like Average White Band or whoever. That would be a tighter, more shag carpet-y sound.
How specific were you in trying to re-cerate specific drum sounds from certain eras?
Hamilton: Not at all. The idea wasn’t to make one of those sepia-toned pictures you would take at the mall in the ’80s, where it looks like you’re in the Old West. The idea was to capture the general spirit. To me, it was like an archaeological situation. Sometimes you would dive right for it, only because I know a 670 was used on Ringo’s overhead, or whatever, with a BBC STC 4038 ribbon mic, so we’d go for that, because we’d know we’d be in the ballpark because of the particular textures that gear gives you. But it was not like, ‘Here’s what they did on this old Ohio Players track; let’s do that.’
“We were always making discoveries as we went along: ‘Wow, the way the upright bass is working with this stuff acoustically in the room and the vibraphone—the [Neumann] 47 in omni in the center with a ton of big ol’ Collins tube compressor on it, sounds so great. Holy shit, it’s like the ‘Far East Suite’ by Duke Ellington. It’s that texture, yet it’s fully funk.’”
Were a bunch of the players on the Studio G sessions musicians who were part of your world?
Hamilton: “Yes. Mattias Bossi and Carla Kihlstedt are two people who played in a band called Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. Carla’s a violin player who plays with Book of Knots with me and Tony [Maimone], and she’s been like the violin and voice on the last four Tom Waits records. She was my point of contact to do a collaboration with him, after the thing I did with Sparklehorse in the late ’90s. She’s a pedigreed freak for sure. As is Matthias. So they came in to play things like the reeds of an accordion and nyckelharpa and some of the more obscure instruments. And Ches Smith came in; he plays in Marc Ribot’s project, Ceramic Dog and a bunch of other groups. He plays some of the more unique timbres, as well [on vibraphone]. I had more access to the freak world that I sort of orbit in than Derek did. He and I crossed over in the funk world and we had common friends there.”
Hamilton on DVS and the album: “Derek has a real vision and real intent in his music. It’s hard for people to imagine what that means when it’s sample-based, but there’s a real arc to all these songs. It follows a dynamic arc like any classical piece you can read along with, that you can follow along with. You can feel it coming up and it finally delivers on that promise, or it lets you down deliberately. There’s a specific intent woven into all the chunks that have been assembled.”