Producer Chris Zane on the Sick and Twisted Walkmen

Nick Sylvester | October 6th, 2010

Chris Zane

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.