On January 6, Just Blaze tweeted the slang spelling of “that’s racist” to an apparent shut-in who was bewildered by the fact that his crates include a band of riotous electro-punks (Crystal Castles) and Italy’s finest big-room rave production duo (Crookers). The underlying premise, as Blaze apparently interpreted it, was that @Mickeus thinks it’s a curio when a hip-hop DJ/black man enjoys “stuff white people like.” In actuality, it would be more absurd if he didn’t — it’s Just’s job to have crates that shame the most thorough, OCD record-collecting nerd, not to mention the fact that he’s made a ridiculous number of songs that seep out the same nuclear energy of Crystal Castles and Crookers.
But that tweet highlighted the fact that a lot of people apparently still have a hard time with “musical miscegenation,” the strange and enduring notion that it is remarkable, odd, or shocking when certain types of music, or musicians, intertwine. The dynamic doubles when rap and anything resembling indie rock mix up; a collabo can induce the blogosphere to collective palpitations/lockjaw/hypothermic shock.
Case in point: Last week, the blissfully lethargic pop band DOM, from Worcester, Massachusetts, released a remix of their terrific song “Living in America,” featuring the eccentric Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane. At the beginning of the song, which is submerged in psychedelic effects, Gucci’s signature ad-lib “‘sGucci!” is screwed down, so that it sounds like he’s singing it in the same key as DOM’s eponymous lead singer. After Dom gets in a cheeky chorus about how living in America is “so sexy,” Gucci somberly shouts out various cities and ladies across the nation. Locked together in tandem trippiness, it’s obvious why a mushmouthed trap rapper was drawn to a mushroomed-out, rust belt redhead.
And yet, across the wilds of the internet, some people typically reacted as though they’d just downloaded the offspring of a three-legged unicorn and an actual pegasus. To be fair, some of the shock stemmed from the fact that Gucci Mane is a quite famous rapper whose first hit, “Icey,” dropped in 2005, and DOM is a scrappy indie band whose debut album will be reissued on Astralwerks next month. But there was also an underlying current of otherness in the mix — those stuck on the impossibility of two weirdos from different genres and, presumably, incongruous lifestyles working together. They shouldn’t be together, or so the thinking goes, whether because of a perceived difference in values or archaic perceptions of race-mixing and/or the total shock that, you know, rappers have the internet, too.
What’s even stranger about this reaction is that indie rock and rap collaborations are increasingly commonplace. Think back to August of 2009, when Jay-Z astonished the Pitchfork set by showing up at a Grizzly Bear show in Brooklyn (Beyonce’s sister Solange is a friend and fan of the band). His attendance (and subdued swaying) generated enough waves that MTV called him up for a quote: “I hope that [indie rockers] have a run where they push hip-hop back a little bit,” he said, “so it will force hip-hop to fight to make better music, because it can happen, because that’s what rap did to rock.”
Not sure if it’s made better music, per se (ugh), but Jay’s Williamsburg Waterfront wish has come true — Kid Cudi worked with with Ratatat and MGMT; Lil B hopped on a beat made by Salem; Kanye West borrowed a Bon Iver song for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Almost one full year after Jay hit up the Grizzly Bear jam, I saw Harlem’s Jim Jones perform a full set backed by the band Snakes Say Hisss at Death By Audio, one of Williamsburg’s scummier punk venues. He did “Ballin’” and “Salute,” his diamond-crusted earlobes glinted at a crowd of 150 kids slipping in beer, and Dame Dash stood stoic in the back. That moment was, admittedly, quite absurd, although it had more to do with the fact that Jim Jones himself is quite absurd, and presumably rich, and Death By Audio is, again, somewhat grody in the way that it’s imperative for all DIY venues to be. But why did it seem like such a big deal that he was even there?
Certainly part of it stems from the trenchant whiteness of indie rock during its ‘90s heyday mixed in with the era’s false dichotomy between “real” and “commercial” rap in some kind of essentialist megabrew. Lines were drawn, genres congealed, radios adhered to formats. But one of the defining facets of the ‘90s was the trend of rock bands like Sonic Youth collaborating with rap groups like Public Enemy (to all the under-25s, that’s Chuck D doing the ad-libs on “Kool Thing”). In a relatively progressive era compared, the Alternative Nation was open and genre mixing was super-cool, at least until the proto-Juggalos came along. (Don’t get me wrong, though: Biohazard collaborating with Onyx was an awesome idea.) Are people still so scarred by the crappier cuts from the Judgment Night soundtrack that rappers and rockers rolling out together seems like something to gawk at? Has anyone ever heard of Aerosmith collaborating with Run-DMC?
Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that indie rock, at this late stage in the game, retains shreds of its origins as an inherently defeatist culture, shoegazing and self-deprecating at any opportunity. Even as many of the biggest indie rock bands take paychecks for soundtracking commercials — and Pitchfork’s been seriously reviewing rap records for at least a half-decade — the idea persists that the genre’s still about slack underachievement: the privileged antithesis of materialism. Clearly, some internet babies are still living by tenets set by Gen X. Pavement reunited, after all. But rap’s whole foundation, the Homeric brag, is diametrically opposed to that, so the biggest culprit in indierock shock is that the perceived winners (or perceived materialists) in the music game are actually deigning to get down with them. This feeds into the whole issue of wealth and celebrity — just gonna go out on a limb here and guess that Gucci Mane’s got a fancier paycheck than DOM does, and certainly more people know his name. But the internet at its greatest as a democratizer, however imperfect. As more rappers and label wonks and managers and friends and cousins are exposed to an increasingly broad pool of music, seemingly off-the-wall collabos will stay pouring in. Not all will be as perfectly paired as DOM and Gucci. Never a fan of the blasé, but in this case, people need to chill.
Behind some of this year’s best records — The Walkmen’s Lisbon, Les Savy Fav’s Root For Ruin, Holy Ghost’s Static on the Wire — is a young producer named Chris Zane. These are vastly different records too, with their own charm and not much in the way of a heavy producer footprint. Zane seems to prefer getting out of the way, which was one of the reasons I was so excited to talk to him for the first in what I hope are many more entries in Riff City’s series about New York Record Producers.
We know a lot about how we feel when we hear a song like, for example, the Walkmen’s “Angela Surf City,” and we have a sense of where the song sits in the fan-fictional entity known as the Canon. But we don’t know much about how the sound itself works to achieve that feeling. I’m hoping to sit down with producers and have them explain specific decisions they made, and specific gestures they were going for, when putting together specific records. I’ll try to keep this from getting too wonky. The goal is to give us more things to love.
Zane works out of Gigantic Studios in Tribeca, which for a while was the in-house studio wing of the I-think-defunct-for-now Gigantic Records. “It’s one of the best studios in New York that nobody knows about,” he told me last week in his control room. (The room apparently used to be part of Philip Glass’s studio, or at least where he kept a piano.) Classic outboard pieces line Zane’s racks, and above his Neve console is a piece of paper hanging sideways from a piece of string. Written on it is the word SUBTLE — circled, and crossed out.
He was born in upstate New York, and learned mixing and recording up in Boston, where he was a studio assistant at Supersonic in Cambridge. “I was always that guy in junior high and high school who had like eight-tracks and recorded — no,” he stopped himself. “Just kidding. I never touched a microphone in my life, ever, until I was 21.”
We talked about a number of records Zane has worked on recently, but his notes on working with the Walkmen are most fascinating, in no small part because Lisbon is such a mysterious record: somehow both ferocious and subdued.
Riff City: Let’s talk about Lisbon. Was this recorded live [as opposed to tracking isolated instruments]?
Chris Zane: They record everything live. The Walkmen do everything every other band thinks they want to do or talks about wanting to do, except they really do it. The caveat to that is, no other band actually wants to do all that. They think they want to do it, they think they want to record to tape, they think they want to do it live, but they don’t. The Walkmen are sick and twisted.
They play everything at once in the same room, except Ham [Hamilton Leithauser] sings in a vocal booth. But live. All at the same time. When the tape was done then the song was done, unless we wanted to add a tambourine or something. And half the time, somebody would play that while they were playing their organ, or something else.
These dudes know who they are, they know what they sound like. I just wanted to make it sound better. I didn’t find out until we were doing You & Me, but their first record hadn’t even been mastered. They mixed it to cassette tape and sent it to the duplication plant.
RC: Tell me more about the guitar tone. You hear that guitar and you know within seconds it’s The Walkmen.
CZ: It’s Paul Maroon’s same amp, this particular amp that he uses — I don’t mean particular model, I mean particular like That One, His — set in a very certain way. He’s tuned into it in a way that you would almost think someone’s lying about. That somebody’s like, “No, it’s not quite right yet” and you’re like, “What is this kid talking about, this shit all sounds the same.” But it really doesn’t sound the same. And he really does know what he’s doing when he sits there and makes these tiny little adjustments to treble and bass and volume and [spring] reverb. They add up in a big way, whether because it inspires him to dig into the guitar differently, or whatever, but it really does have a big effect.
While it might be frustrating how into their vintage shit they are, you end up walking away feeling like you just got schooled by your grandfather who showed you that with like a oil can and a wrench he can fix his ’57 Chevy and it’s still going to outperform your 2009 Corolla. It’s just craftsmanship that doesn’t exist anymore. Paul’s amp and his guitars that he uses — they’re just awesome. They just sound awesome.
When we did You & Me, Paul plays this Rickenbacker, this special Rickenbacker that’s very rare. He’s gone through two of them. They’re hard to find and really overpriced. I said to him, this is the guitar I’ve been searching for my entire life. It has the sound I’ve wanted to hear forever. But it’s like five figures. They did two nights at Bowery Ballroom for a record release for You & Me. After the soundcheck of the first night–second night maybe?–Hamilton stepped on that guitar and broke it. That was August 2008. It’s been in the shop since. It turned into this huge running joke of this guy who’s been fixing this guitar for literally over two years now. Supposedly it’s almost done now. That guitar was magic.
RC: You let the tone of the instruments themselves do the heavy lifting, it sounds like. Not much post-processing or tricks with the mixing.
CZ: It’s the sound. That’s where it always starts. Anybody who tells you that the Walkmen sound is because I stayed in the studio all night and turned knobs… It all starts with two things, sorry producers to blow the whistle: the song, and who’s playing the thing. That’s it.
That said, the way I try to present those sounds to people can play a big role. There isn’t that much direct miking or presentation as you would think. For example, the mic that’s on the guitar on the Walkmen stuff we’ve done is quite far from the amp, maybe two to three feet away, and not even pointed at it. And it’s a ribbon mic. It’s only loosely picking it up. That’s blended into this bigger picture. 75% of the sound of Lisbon is two mics that I just have out in the room trying to capture as much as everybody as possible, really compressed. That’s where most everything is coming from. But it’s about how you blend the other elements into that that makes it sound the way that it does. The layers of reverb on Ham’s vocals, they pull it all together.
RC: The drums on their records are always very roomy, pushed back far in the mix.
CZ: Most of what you’re hearing is from these room mics or overheads. One of the first things I asked the Walkmen was, why are your drums so roomy? How did you stumble into that aesthetic? They told me it was because they were never good enough to record the drums close themselves. It’s suggested by some that it’s the hardest part of recording. It became part of their aesthetic so much that I was doing it. It just sounded right to me. They just don’t love the sound of a close drum. But because it’s played by Matt [Barrick] with such ferociousness, it has that kind of contrast — kind of small, kind of far away, but you get the sense that someone is pummeling the shit out of it.
RC: The horns on the last song, “Lisbon,” have a weird way of just billowing out — no attack.
CZ: That song is one of my favorites. There’s tape effect on almost everyhting. At the beginning of recording, Paul was on this Elvis, Sun shit. So he came in here and was like, “I want to try something new. I’m not going to put any reverb on my amp.” And Ham was like, “Yeah, I don’t want that much on my voice. We’re gonna use slapback.” We started experimenting with some stuff, Space Echo, and I was like: Well, the way Sun did it was they used another tape machine, and used that as the delay. You changed the verispeed to set the tempo. And Paul and Ham were like, “Yeah! Let’s do that!” Typical band. “It sounds… mythical! Let’s do it!” But for some reason it just worked on this song.
The horns for the Walkmen always start in the same way which is, lo and behold, stick them in the room. We decide which days we want horns, and we do all the horn songs that day. So the band’s out there playing, we file all the horn players into that same room, maybe I put one or two mics near them but for the most part it’s just being recorded, the drum mics are recording the horns, the guitar mics are recording the horns. They’re just in the room. And then we’ll start adding horns on top of that. We did two more takes of horns, isolated, blended them in. We also had Paul hack his way through playing some viola and trumpet in his house in Philly, and then bring me those files. It will generally sound god-awful and terrible and unusual, but for whatever reason, when we put it in, it just sounds better, and when we take it out, it sounds lesser. So there’s a little bit of Paul trumpet in there. And then there’s just some particular plate reverb and Space Echo on them that, when it’s all together, has this way of growing and subtracting and growing and subtracting. It sounds a little fucked up but also kind of pretty. That’s what it was meant to do.
I don’t read much rock criticism except the stuff my friends write, but for whatever reason I was curious to see reviews of The Suburbs, the new album by Montreal indie rock band Arcade Fire. If I’m being upfront, this album impresses the hell out of me. I wanted to see what paid professionals thought of the album’s bigger curve balls: the extra ninth beat in the verses of “Modern Man”; the Suicide-like moves on post-punk number “Month Of May,” complete with tape delay and Vega yelp and disoriented drum sounds; in general, how Win Butler has become a better vocalist with every album, less reliant on the affected vibrato of Funeral, less ‘on’ the mic too. The album is full of specific decisions, off-kilter reference points, subtle gestures in the production, all in service of one question: How can I, the musician, make this melody sound familiar but surprising? What do I need to scoff up a bit to make this thing work?
From one paid professional, I learned about The Suburbs’ “impressively fervent majesty.” Another paid professional wrote: “In their dictionary, ‘suburbs’ is nowhere near ‘subtlety’.” A paid professional at a music recommendation website got a few toes wet, reporting that in “We Come To Wait,” “staccato, minor-key piano chords evoke anxiety.” What I learned from the reviews, which were mostly very positive, was that The Suburbs recalls songs by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young — probably the similarities in subject matter and Butler’s voice and the acoustic guitar strumming. The album is 16 songs long with an hour runtime, which of course means it is ambitious. The band must be attempting to make a grand statement about suburb life; yet somehow this is also “their most straightforward work to date.”
More than liking this album — and I’m not saying they don’t derive actual physical pleasure from listening — the paid professionals seem to like what the album signifies. The themes and reference points and present-day contexts have lined up like planets in a solar system. The reviews wrote themselves.
There are a few people not digging Arcade Fire, this album, whatever, as much as I or others do. Rob Harvilla at the Voice wishes the band was funnier, which is one way to say he thinks Butler is a corny dude. (I think the chorus of “Rococo” is sardonic and hilarious, on the right side of “humor in music,” but whatever.) On the flip is Bob Christgau, who likes The Suburbs fine but misses when Butler was more urgent and explicit about his politics, when we knew who the they were. Either way. There are situations when lyrics are deal-breakers. Even in the most rah-rah reviews of The Suburbs, critics were more than happy to hang dry Butler’s words, as if negativity and specificity in this regard gave weight to their otherwise nebulous praise.
Which is the issue here: The most prominent paid professionals will not give me reasons why they like these songs as compositions, productions, performances — anything other than as signifiers of various contexts that sit well with them. No explanation of mechanics, how the songs surprise in new ways, but delight in the old ones. Maybe that makes me the last boy scout — wanting to talk about these things, to geek out about the different kinds of knots the band had to tie, so to speak. Songs like the Hold Steady’s, where lyrics are heavier in the balance, seem to get these people more quickly out of their tents. Maybe good lyrics are easier to dance about.
Do I want record reviews to read like the Tape-Op messageboards? Not exactly, but here’s where we stand if professional writings about one of the year’s best pop albums indicate anything: Rock criticism as ‘criticism of music’ remains a non-fiction fan-fiction enterprise. It is a flaccid, indecisive farce — neither informed nor informative nor entertaining — when the only thing it can say about the song “Deep Blue” is that it “doesn’t develop its Kasparov vs. IBM metaphor into more than an afterthought.” No mention anywhere of the genius move it was to nick the intro of Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” for a song about technological alienation, a song that never makes its way to the beach.
Call it the Context of All Context: From paid professional rock critics, we are getting some vague apprehension of an album’s place in a genre and its most superficial sounds-like similarities. If we’re lucky, we are treated to some new-crit flight of fancy in which the critic shows how the album resonates in the larger world and vice versa, or probably something about gender issues. Or maybe, if we’re really lucky, the critic completely and deliberately misunderstands an artist’s intent in such a way that it doesn’t so much explicate the music as it does give us new context altogether. A stunt review — an acknowledgment of rock criticism’s failure as music criticism — at least has the decency to entertain, though good luck finding someone to pay you for one of those. Cue staccato minor-key chords.