Sydney’s Luna Park recently played host to one of the world’s most eccentric musical outfits – the Eels. Mark O’Connor (a self-confessed Eels fan) was there with bells on to see how their music translates live.
It’s that moment just before a concert begins, when the lights go down and the curtain goes up on a stage enveloped in semi-darkness – save for the tiny red pinpoint glow here and there of an onstage amplifier – and you wonder what sort of an evening’s entertainment awaits. Tonight I’m expecting something out of the ordinary. I know the Eels won’t let me down.
To be clear from the outset, I am an Eels fan. In fact, this is understatement. For me, the Eels sweep all competition aside: an island of artistic integrity in a sea of pop culture mediocrity! The Eels repertoire is like a rollercoaster ride through the full gambit of the human experience, much of which tonight will be dismantled and reassembled, reconstituted and rendered on stage with fresh new arrangements for strings and some other exotic instrumentation.
A pre-show Eels ‘home movie’ screening reminds us that the Eels are ‘29 floating members’ (probably anyone who ever appeared on an Eels album or stage) and ‘one constant member’ – the Eels mastermind who calls himself ‘E’. E, reveling in the wake of his most recent double album release, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, has seen fit to take to the road with the most challenging incarnation of the band yet – Eels With Strings.
The curtain lifts on an all-girl string quartet, already seated and tuning up. They’re joined firstly at stage right by a tall man whose lounge suit, together with mohawk and sunglasses, presents a striking image as he takes up position behind a double bass; while another man (also besuited) proceeds to stage left where, amidst a veritable constellation of odd musical instruments, he seats himself at the funkiest ‘drumkit’ I’ve ever seen and begins to play. This is Chet. During the course of the first half dozen songs he will expertly play (in quick succession) this so-called drumkit, a lap steel, Gretsch guitar, mandolin, melodica, and a saw (as in ‘Timbeeeer!’).
As Chet lays it down, Big Al (as he’s known) rumbles into life on upright bass; an initially woolly sound that quickly comes together even as we listen. Finally the strings join in with a sad, lilting melody. Acquainted as I am with every nuance of the Eels repertoire, I soon recognise – as any self-respecting Eels fan would – the opening strains of Fresh Feeling from the Eels’ 2001 Souljacker album.
AAH… THEATRE. SHOWMANSHIP.
Finally he appears, the ‘one constant member’, resembling a Jewish rabbi in his dark suit and homburg hat, bearded and brandishing a cigar – it’s Mark Oliver Everett… E himself. He strides to the microphone, takes a puff on his cigar, and begins to sing in that familiar gravelly voice that will sit for the rest of the evening atop a mix of surprising clarity, given the dubious acoustic integrity of this most unlikely venue, the Luna Park Big Top – not exactly the Royal Albert Hall which, incidentally, this tour has played.
By evening’s end I can’t help but acknowledge that Eels FOH engineer definitely has his work cut out for him – not only in taming the sound in this ‘tin shed’ but also in staying on top of the eclectic mix of textures and constant round of musical chairs taking place up on stage, as the multi-instrumentalist Eels deliver what I came here for.
FERRIS EELS & FAIRY FLOSS
Eels FOH engineer Josh Paul had toured with the band on the Shootenanny tour a few years back, but by his own admission that didn’t necessarily prepare him for Eels With Strings. He explains…
Josh Paul: The previous tour I’d done with them was a straight-up, four-piece rock’n’roll band – drums, bass, two guitars, a keyboard line, and E only had two vocal positions. But this tour has been entirely different: a string section, no real drums to speak of and all kinds of weird eclectic instruments onstage – it’s definitely been a lot more challenging than anything I’ve done before.
Mark O’Connor: Can you expand on that? From my vantage point you certainly seemed to have your hands full.
JP: Well, there were 32 lines coming off stage and only about four of those lines were direct inputs. So that left about 26 or 28 acoustic mics onstage, and it wasn’t like your conventional ‘two kick drum mics, snare top, snare bottom and hats’ or whatever. These instruments – the string section and a celeste (at one point we had a pump organ), a piano and then a saw – are really quiet, so you have to be very careful with your gain structure because it’s going to take off very quickly if you’re not careful.
All that’s fine in itself, but E also wants a rock’n’roll volume as much as possible, which can be really challenging when you’ve got that many open mics on stage. I’ll get to a point where I’m thinking I have a decent volume and then it’s suggested that ‘I turn it up’, and I’m like, ‘Oookaaay…’. Then I’d have to go through and adjust everything, and of course if you adjust everything, your EQ changes, so you’ve got to make those adjustments and so on it goes down the line.
Plus, on nearly every song the three band members are moving about. At the stage left position where there are about six mic channels, that guy would be playing two lines over there and then two different lines on another song, or he would go over and play the piano, in which case none of these mic lines would be open. I’ve had to be very careful about what channels are left up because you don’t want to leave an open mic that’s running hot just sitting there picking up stage noise. First of all it’s gonna interfere with the mix, and secondly, it’s gonna start taking off unless you have a handle on it, so… that’s bee n the most challenging part of it, making sure the lines that need to be on are on, and the ones that don’t are off.
MO’C: Any other major challenges?
JP: The set-list for the most part has never changed, with the exception of two ‘wild card’ songs that are sometimes thrown into the middle of the set, chosen from six possible candidates. Originally when I started working on this run it was all analogue consoles at FOH and monitors. That was a good arrangement as everything was laid out, one through 32, straight across on the board. After a while I got into the rhythm of pulling the faders up and down – my gains weren’t really changing so it was mostly fader mixing. Then after the European run we headed to the US where the suggestion was made to record a live DVD. [A live album CD and concert film DVD of the June 30th performance at New York City’s Town Hall will be released February 21, 2006.] So Kevin and I got together and, knowing the people at Digico, he suggested we ‘go digital’. I’m like, ‘Okay, that sounds good’. But I’d never used a D1 before. So I read up on the console and its software on a flight from London to San Francisco where our first US show was scheduled. When we got to load-in on the first day the D1s showed up and I was like, ‘Wow! These are cool!’. Then once we started setting up I was like, ‘Man, this is a real pain to operate,’ but only because I didn’t know how to use it. Sonically, that first show didn’t go so well. But on the second day, in a little bit of downtime, I made some snapshots of the songs, and that night, as each song would end I’d wait until the applause died down, then hit the snapshot for the next song and Bang, all my faders would come up ready for action. That’s the really good thing about the digital console. I had some minor dramas with it initially, but after that I was in love with it! The D1’s ease of use and reliability is such that now it’s a permanent fixture.
MO’C: I assume you’re hiring production locally…
JP: That’s correct. With the D1 you just throw a USB card/drive in the console, upload your settings, and Viola! there it is – your last show. Every day I save whatever changes I’ve made. I spend half an hour to 45 minutes wiring the board, getting everything labelled – then I hit ‘Load’ and it takes three seconds. The changes between songs have become easier, but the challenge of mixing the show still remains.
EELS IN MOTION
MO’C: Can you take us through the stage setup and the miking of some of these instruments?
JP: With the celeste we ended up just miking it like a piano. Initially I was doing a low and a high on it – the low using a Sennheiser 504 and the high a Shure KSM27. That worked out well until there came a point where the mid section wasn’t getting picked up so well, so we ran a Y-split – we used two 504s for the low and the mids, but coming up on one channel, and then one KSM27 on the high. It was a weird little combination but it worked.
The next thing was the saw – a real saw that you’d use to hack down a tree – which Chet would play with a violin bow. It’s really tricky to play – you hold it in an S shape and then you bow it. Its natural range is between 500Hz and 1.25kHz and that’s it. The first thing I ever put on it was a KSM27 and it worked like a dream. We positioned it about six inches away from the saw and it picked it up perfectly.
With the strings, we were initially using Fishman preamps, which went straight to a DI off their pickups. But I wasn’t really happy with the way they sounded. We tried clip-on mics, but because they were using wedges and the volume was so loud, anytime we turned up the string mics it would just take off in the wedges. So we decided to use in-ear monitors for the string players and clip-on mics for their instruments, which sounds so much better… though there was one problem. The violins (at stage right, near the standup bass, piano and celeste) were fine, but the cello and the viola on stage left (over by the electric guitar, the kick and snare) were picking up a lot of stage wash. So we ended up running the mics and the DIs together, using a blend of the two. The monitor mix now predominantly consists of the DI sound, but at FOH I’m mixing about 75% mics, 25% DIs. We also use an upright piano, which for the most part is miked with AKG C414s, again just a low and a high. But we use different upright pianos all the time (we hire those too, obviously) and we always have to experiment with miking those up because every piano is different and we’ve been trying to get a lot of low end off the piano – i.e. warmth – and sometimes it’s really hard to get that because when it’s not there naturally we’re trying to enhance it, and trying to enhance something that’s not there can be tricky. So the piano is the thing that has provided the most headaches.
MO’C: Which brings us to the ‘drumkit’ which is most interesting… quite simply a suitcase kick and a trashcan snare.
JP: That’s right. The kick drum isn’t a kick drum. It’s a suitcase – a real actual suitcase. At first I was using a Beyer M88 outside it, but it wasn’t really working because I wanted to get a kind of 808 [Roland TR808 drum machine] feel out of it. I wasn’t able to get anything like that sound with a mic outside, so we drilled a hole in the side of the case and put a Shure Beta 91 in it and that worked fine. It gave me the boom that I wanted, a little bit of click – as much click as you can get off a suitcase – enough to resemble some sort of drum, anyway. We put some foam in it too. It always sounded okay off the bat but it was just one of those things – our kick drum is a suitcase. How bizarre is that!? But it works. And the snare drum is a real snare, albeit one that’s resting in a trashcan.
MO’C: So a ‘trashy’ drum sound then?
JP: Right. We just miked it with a Sennheiser 504. Chet also taps the clasp on the top of the suitcase as a hi-hat. The problem this causes is that when I occasionally want to gate the suitcase (sometimes it threatens to feed back at the volume I’m running it), I have to back off the gate to pick up the tapping without letting it take off. I’m adding a ton of low end on the suitcase, while at the same time ensuring that when he’s tapping out a hat rhythm on it I can still get some definition. It’s quite a unique setup really.
MO’C: So I imagine the first run was a steep learning curve?
JP: The first day of rehearsals was a pretty steep learning curve. I walked in on the setup and I’m like: “Wow! What am I gonna do here?”. We had two days of rehearsals, followed by a live radio recording, four shows, a day off, and then we flew to Europe to start the run. And I was like, “How am I gonna do this? I’ve got all these weird instruments… there’s no precedent for how this goes”. It’s not like a regular four-piece band where I can walk in and go, “I know how to do this”. It was entirely different.
Once the initial shock wore off I started experimenting with mic placements… but it wasn’t until we got over to England, where we picked up Kevin Madigan [monitors] that things really came together. I’ve gotta tell you, having a good monitor guy makes all the difference in the world. Kevin totally rocks – he came in the first day, nailed it, and from then on it was great.
MO’C: Do you do much processing of the sound in terms of compression, reverbs and delays?
JP: I don’t do too much in terms of effects. I use different reverbs, one for E’s vocal, one for the strings, and then one for the backing vocals, which are predominantly Chet. There are a couple of songs where the string players use their mics to pick up percussion instruments – shakers and tambourines – I use a very slight reverb on that. I use whatever I’m given to work with locally. The only setup I’m specific about is E’s stuff – he has a naturally sibilant voice, around 5.5kHz, so I have to de-ess him constantly. I use either four channels of BSS DPR-502s, two DPR-402s or one DPR-404. When I throw that in across his voice it’s fine. Unfortunately, in Sydney I wasn’t able to get the outboard de-essers I wanted so I had to create one off the digital board, and I wasn’t happy with it. It seemed too frequency specific and I just didn’t like the way it sounded. Other than that I use an [Eventide] Harmonizer and just run a very subtle doubler on the lead vocal, even though I don’t really need it because E projects and sings very well. We use Shure SM58s for vocals. On the last tour I did with E we were using Audix Onyxs at first, the OM3s. Unfortunately they couldn’t handle the abuse. At the end of each show E would take his mic stand and throw it down as part of the schtick, and the OM3 just couldn’t cope with that treatment. So I had to sacrifice vocal quality for durability… but the Onyxs worked great, they were awesome sounding… when they worked!
our kick drum is a suitcase. How bizarre is that!? But it works. And the snare drum is a real snare, albeit one that’s resting in a trashcan
MONITORS – SLIPPERY EELS
Irish monitors engineer Kevin Madigan came on board in London some way into the Eels tour. For him it has “definitely been a high pressure gig”, with an “expectation of a day-to-day consistency of quality from the guys. They’re demanding, but they know what they want”.
MO’C: Has working with the strings presented any particular challenges for you in terms of onstage sound?
Kevin Madigan: With strings, the in-ears were imperative. I inherited the gig from someone else, and for the first half of the tour in Europe and the US there was already gear in place which included them using floor wedges. This was making it difficult for both myself and Josh and the string players themselves because, although it appears an easy-going type show, there’s quite a lot of monitor level onstage. E likes it to be nice and loud and that gets back into the strings and makes it difficult for them to hear. Getting the string players onto in-ears was a real solution to that – the string players were able to hear themselves without having to strain or get blown away by the floor wedges, which they’re not really accustomed to either. Floor wedges are such problematic things when you’re dealing with small capsule mics that aren’t really directional, so I was trying to keep the strings separated from any wedges as much as possible. We actually wanted to get a full perspex screen across them, but the travel schedules didn’t allow it.
MO’C: How were the strings miked?
KM: We used Countryman EMW mics. They’re little clip-on omni-directional mics, which is fine when you’re dealing with the higher frequency violins but when you get down into viola and cello it really picks up a lot of lower-end wash from stage: from Chet’s psuedo kickdrum and even the double bass. We ended up using a combination of Fishman transducers and the mics on viola and cello feeding the in-ears, so they got maybe an 80/20 mix, with 80% from the Fishmans to give more clarity. Josh’s FOH mix for them was virtually the opposite, more mic heavy. The violins were fine just having the mics.
MO’C: Meanwhile the other guys in the band used wedges?
KM: Yes. We toured in Europe with the L-Acoustics 115XT Hi Q wedges and if I never use anything else again I’d be happy. They’re fantastic, and the guys love them as well – they’re the best wedges I’ve come across in a long, long time. E likes a very healthy level of sound on stage, he’s very particular about what he wants, and doesn’t like things to change from day to day. Which is fine, so to achieve that was another reason for using the Digico and the L-Acoustics, both of which made life easier on a daily basis.
MO’C: What about the saw? Does that go through the wedges, and if so, does that create problems?
KM: The saw is only in Chet’s mix. It’s possible with the saw to create some high level, high frequency harmonics. We’ve had to watch out for that as it tends to happen when the saw is bent quite a bit and is close-in towards the mic, which tends to induce feedback if we let it get away. It’s quite an unusual instrument – can’t say I’ve had any prior experience with that one… or with a suitcase for that matter.
MO’C: Was the large number of open mics as opposed to DIs a problem for onstage sound?
KM: Yeah, that was one of the main reasons for going down the Digico D1 route, which I used throughout – it’s definitely my board of choice. With the D1 I’ve got all the snapshots programmed in, so per song I’ve got different gains or different send levels for different monitors that are actually programmed in, and the separate mutes that need to be used for each song. All up, I’ve got a far more stable stage than I’d be able to achieve using a traditional analogue console. I had to go back to analogue in New Zealand where I had a Heritage 3000 console. I love that board but I can’t work as fast, that’s for sure. It’s possible but a little bit more nerve wracking; not quite as stable so you’re watching things very carefully just to make sure nothing gets out of hand.