Jan 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Bill Murphy
There's a movement afoot. Well, maybe not a movement per se, but certainly a nascent trend is gathering momentum under a talented crop of producers that includes Jamie Lidell, Imogen Heap, Prefuse 73, Four Tet, Jimmy LaValle (aka The Album Leaf), Matthew Friedberger (the Fiery Furnaces), Daniel Snaith (aka Caribou) and more. The common ground they share: a dedication to composing, producing and performing their own music on a variety of instruments while bending cross-pollinated styles and cut-and-paste techniques (with samples that are either unrecognizable or self-generated) into fresh sonic shapes. And they often do it with limited equipment at their disposal.
A couple of years ago, producer, singer and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Barnes made his own case for joining the fray with his group Of Montreal's Satanic Panic in the Attic (Polyvinyl, 2004) — technically the band's sixth album but the first that had been created virtually from scratch by Barnes himself. Up until then, Of Montreal had been known, starting with its debut Cherry Peel (Bar/None, 1997), as a defiantly retro-psychedelic pop band that claimed Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson and David Bowie as its songwriting heroes. The band had also been embraced as a cult fixture on the resurgent avant-garage pop scene in Athens, Georgia, which spawned the Elephant 6 musicians' collective in the early 1990s (and helped propel such flagship combos as Neutral Milk Hotel, the Apples in Stereo and the Olivia Tremor Control).
But Satanic Panic in the Attic — with its electronic textures, lo-fi bedroom beats, lushly layered vocals and weird, dreamlike melodies — marked a departure for Barnes. Not only was he coming into his own as a composer and producer, but he'd also made the decision to be literally on his own as an artist, having moved out of the house that the band had shared for two years (and two albums, in 2001 and 2002).
Although there was friction at first — especially when the rest of the band learned that Barnes had made an entire Of Montreal album by himself — the split was ultimately amicable. Since then, Barnes has churned out the “electro-pop opera” Sunlandic Twins (Polyvinyl, 2005) and toured as Of Montreal with original members Bryan Poole (aka The Late B.P. Helium, guitar), Dottie Alexander (keyboards), Matt Dawson (bass) and Jamey Huggins (drums). And last fall, the band was invited by Beck to open for Jamie Lidell at Wired magazine's NextFest, where they gave a packed house at Irving Plaza in New York a small taste of the next installment in the Of Montreal canon.
Cryptically titled, in another unmistakably Barnes-ish quirk, as Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (Polyvinyl, 2007), the new album is a sonic riot of glam, funk, disco and post-mod influences. Work on the project was a trans-Atlantic affair and chronicles yet another stage in Barnes' growth as a producer.
“I did about half of the album on my [PowerBook G4] laptop in Oslo, [Norway],” he says, citing the adopted home he shares for roughly half the year with his wife and daughter, “and the rest in Athens, Georgia. Just in the last couple of years, I've started working on computers a lot more. It's really helpful to have a portable setup that you can just bring anywhere. That's also made it easier for me to write as I'm recording, which I never used to do. Now I'm more about just seeing what happens so that something more organic can evolve — then you can develop that and work on it over time.”
NOTHING IS UNREASONABLE
Barnes has recently switched to a MacBook Pro running Apple Logic Pro 7, but for the making of Hissing Fauna, Steinberg Cubase was his main recording and mixing platform. While in Oslo, he used an original Digidesign Mbox as his audio interface; back in Athens, he sometimes used an analog 8-track machine running to a PC, with an M-Audio Delta 1010 as the A/D interface.
“I don't really recommend that,” Barnes jokes. “Not to dis M-Audio because I think they're really cool. But I got it a couple of years ago because I wanted to have eight ins so I could run all the songs from the tape machine onto the computer without having to do any time-stretching or anything weird like that. Now I'm actually using a PreSonus Firebox for all my conversion, which really works well for me.”
With portability being such an important factor in his creative process, Barnes needed a compact synthesizer setup that could handle the rigors of the road. For that, he relied on M-Audio's Oxygen 8, which he employed as a MIDI controller for the soft synths in Propellerhead Reason. And almost surprisingly — considering the otherworldly depth and richness of synthesized atmospherics that permeate the album — Barnes turned to Reason almost exclusively for his synth and piano sounds, as well as nearly all of his drum samples and beat programming.
“Almost all the drum sounds I have, I've gotten from Reason,” he confides. “It's cool because you can go to the Propellerhead Website where a lot of people have uploaded their own sounds, and then Reason has put together all these drum libraries, too. As far as the synths go, I don't really treat them very much. I guess you want to be able to change them to sound more personal — and I still feel like I'm just a novice when it comes to this kind of recording — but to me it's all about the final result and what it sounds like, and if you're having fun in the studio.”
Even so, Barnes has placed himself on an accelerated learning curve with Reason, as a couple of key tracks demonstrate. The buzzing june-bug synths and willowy pianos of “Cato as a Pun” — a loping, psychedelic nod to Brian Eno's post-Roxy Music era — are all Reason-based, while the beat recalls an Aphex Twin-style drum 'n' bass rhythm, all painstakingly arranged by Barnes in the Reason sequencer. Meanwhile, he drops Reason's Scream 4 Sound Destruction Unit over brief sections of “We Were Born the Mutants Again With Leafling,” giving the track's sunny disposition a heady dose of distortion.
Elsewhere, the shimmery new wave-ish pop of “Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse” takes Reason even further as a compositional tool. “Actually, I think that's the one song on the record that to my memory has nothing but Reason sounds in it,” Barnes says. “There's no bass or guitars — no analog anything.”
ALL TOGETHER NOW
For all the computer-based recording, arranging and signal processing that takes place on Hissing Fauna, the album's in-studio performances help lend more of a rock-band feel to the proceedings — and in fact, although he plays most of the bass and guitar parts himself, Barnes did invite some guests up to the attic he used as a studio in Athens to lay down some live takes. The 12-minute epic “The Past Is a Grotesque Animal,” which in its original state clocked in at nearly 20 minutes, features Adrian Belew-like animalistic guitars (layered by The Late B.P. Helium), improvised MicroKorg lines running through a Line 6 DL4 delay modeler (played by Huggins) and a small cello ensemble (tracked by longtime Of Montreal friend and collaborator Heather McIntosh).
“I wasn't really thinking so much about how I was gonna edit or mix it,” Barnes explains. “So once I had a basic song structure, it became all about getting lost in the creation of it. Everyone ran through the whole thing maybe four or five times, and then after that I figured out what to accentuate in the mix. The title is a reference to the feeling of being divorced from the world — like feeling alienated and under attack, or in a state of paranoia — so the idea was to get these really eerie sounds that almost have some sort of animal quality.”
With his own voice, Barnes is able to emulate just about any singing style. It's a versatility that serves him strongest on the stripped-down disco confection “Gronlandic Edit,” where he bends and twists his meticulously stacked vocal harmonies to mesh with the high-pitched synth lines, and on the dirt-perfect funk anthem “Faberge Falls for Shuggie” — a tribute, naturally, to soul singer Shuggie Otis. (Barnes records all his vocals with a Beyerdynamic M 88 and uses a Lawson L47 tube condenser mic to capture live strings.)
“I might have used a Cubase ModDelay on the vocals, like you hear in ‘Sink the Seine,’” Barnes says, referring to that song's Spector-ish sheen, “but I recorded everything on the same microphone no matter where I was, so in that way it doesn't really feel as schizophrenic as it could. I'm still really interested in vocals as an instrument because they can be so beautiful if you actually take the time to get them in key. Most of what I'm doing is not very sample based, but I feel like I can make up for that by singing parts in a certain way. Sometimes they can sound claustrophobic, or they can sound interesting and bizarre if you work on them.”
MIX AS YOU GO — OR NOT?
Barnes has always been a prolific songwriter, so it's normally in his best interest to work quickly to keep up with the constant flow of ideas. But his new method of working in the studio — writing songs as he's recording — can be a little risky, as he soon discovered when it came to the mixing phase.
“If I'm working with the headphones on, I might try to mix as I'm recording,” he says, “and then I'll wake up the next day and listen back on the speakers, and it's like, ‘Oh my God — the vocals are so loud.’ It's like I wasn't thinking at all. That's the extra-weird thing about music: What you hear can totally change from day to day. One day it sounds great, and the next day it could sound like garbage even though nothing's changed.”
In the end, when Barnes had finished recording and was ready to mix, he might have brought the tracks to someone else if the conditions — specifically a connection to a reliable mix engineer and an available budget — had been ideal. “I ended up mixing it all myself, which probably wasn't the best idea,” he admits, “but then at the same time, you can totally drive yourself crazy worrying about that. For people who are really into music, fidelity doesn't matter so much. The Shins record is a perfect example — not the newest one, but Oh, Inverted World [Sub Pop, 2001]. It sounds like someone using a cheap laptop or a cheap soundcard, but the thing that shines through is the brilliant songwriting. Stuff like Guided By Voices' Alien Lanes [Matador, 1995] is a classic, brilliant record, but an audio snob isn't gonna get that. So even if there might be some limitations to what equipment you have, I really think it's all about the ideas and the spirit behind it.”
Of course, for all the levity he attributes to mixing, Barnes is still quite conscious that a loose-sounding album can be tightened up considerably in the mastering phase (see the sidebar, “All Hail the Master”). And he'll even listen to other albums for reference — although he claims that the experience isn't always pleasing.
“Sometimes I listen to the records I really love,” he says, “like The Beatles' White Album is a good one. But the thing with that is I can get depressed because I realize, like, ‘This doesn't sound anything like what I'm doing. My stuff sounds so flat.’ [Laughs.] When you start comparing yourself to giants, of course you're gonna pale in comparison; you start to become more judgmental, and you lose the spirit of it. So again, I try not to get too carried away with that.”
MAPPING IMPOSSIBLE WORLDS
There's a certain alien quality to Of Montreal's musical output, no matter how refined Barnes' production stroke, how poignant and personal his lyrics or how exceedingly catchy his melodies have grown since he first started writing songs more than 10 years ago. As repeated listens to Hissing Fauna will reveal, Barnes sometimes wears his influences on his sleeve, but he never does so at the expense of sounding unoriginal — if anything, his endlessly suggestive songs simply reflect those influences back with a thousand newly invented directions in their wake. He professes a love for music as far-flung as the fractured northern Cali pop of Deerhoof, the psychedelic tropicalismo of '70s Brazilian prog rockers Os Mutantes, the half-crazed fusion complexities of Frank Zappa and the licentious funk workouts of Sly Stone, Funkadelic, James Brown and Prince. And that's just the tip of the iPod.
“I listen to a lot of records from the '60s and '70s,” Barnes says, “and all of them have this amazing atmosphere. You can totally visualize the studio and the environment around it and the musicians that were playing there. But with the new techniques and the new software, people can create these worlds all by themselves, which suggests a very insular type of recording.”
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. “Actually, that's the cool thing,” Barnes continues. “With the versatility of computer recording, you can totally change the landscape just by snapping your fingers, and everything sounds drastically different. I really love that style of cut-and-paste pop writing that Os Mutantes and Frank Zappa used; it's just really cool because it's so unpredictable. That's the motivation for me when I'm making music, is to try to make something that's fun, entertaining, unpredictable, hummable, emotive — all the things that I really like in music.”
ALL HAIL THE MASTER
There's nothing quite like an extra set of ears when you've been holed up in a studio with your own music for six months — which is why when Kevin Barnes was ready to master Hissing Fauna, he opted for not only one of the best in the business, but for someone with an area of focus that differs radically from the music Of Montreal is known for. Enter mastering engineer Glenn Schick, whose range of work for Ludacris, Cee-Lo, Jazze Pha, Ying Yang Twins and David Banner seems, on the surface at least, about as far removed from Barnes' left-field DIY art-pop as you can get.
“I've actually been working with Glenn for a long time,” Barnes clarifies. “When he listens to music, I think it's his job to be kind of critical and to listen to frequencies and stuff like that. Most people who are autodidactic engineers — people like me, who don't really have any training — it's all just instinctual. We don't hear those things like, ‘Oh, you've gotta compress at 4 k, man. That's ruining the song.’ [Laughs.] It doesn't even occur to us. So it's cool to go to someone like that who hears music in that way and can pick it apart. And it always sounds better.”
While he appreciates the nip-and-tuck process in mastering that can make a good record sound great, Barnes is of course also acutely aware of the tradeoff that's involved — particularly in light of the fact that his own approach to mixing is so instinctual.
“Good mastering can give a greater continuity to certain things that you might not even have the language for,” he says. “I might be like, ‘I don't know why this song is hurting my ears,’ and Glenn will listen to it and be like, ‘Okay, you need to change this.' The tricky thing about doing all these EQ changes is that you're affecting the global mix, which is a serious drag because it would be so much better if you could just go in and compress the guitars or whatever it is. Obviously, when you do that at the mastering stage, it's already too late. But at the same time, it's not something to lose sleep over. A noncompressed guitar isn't gonna destroy your record. I think it's important for people to have fun with the creative process, do the best they can in the mixing stages, and then just let it go and move on to the next project.”
FROM OSLO TO ATHENS
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple PowerBook G4 running Steinberg Cubase SX2
Apple MacBook Pro with Apple Logic Pro 7
Digidesign Mbox recording interface
PreSonus Firebox FireWire recording interface
Synths, software, instruments
Gibson SG electric guitar
M-Audio Oxygen 8
Rickenbacker 4001 bass
Vox AC15 guitar combo amplifier
Beyerdynamic M 88 cardioid microphone
Lawson L47 tube condenser microphone
Line 6 DL4 delay modeler
Mackie HR624 monitors