Violent Soho are more at home than ever on Waco. The second album since returning to their roots sees the band continue their loyal relationship with producer Bryce Moorhead.
Feature: Mark Davie
Photos: Luke Henery
For a while there, Violent Soho was like a smartphone in the hands of a confused gorilla — Thurston Moore’s label Ecstatic Peace! to be precise. It could sense there was something valuable inside, but rather than deferring to the owner for the unlock code, it just kept smashing it on the floor.
Inevitably, things started to crack. Rather than producing a rare jewel, the extreme pressure precipitated a final collapse, after one too many beatings.
Before Ecstatic Peace! came on the scene, the Mansfield band’s first EP went down well. Locally produced by Bryce Moorhead, it netted them a number of strong support slots. A locally made album followed — this time produced by manager Dean Dirt, and recorded and mixed by Moorhead and Sloth — with songs strong enough to attract the attention of the Sonic Youth frontman.
When Ecstatic Peace! picked the band up, rather than trusting the band to keep growing, a hold was placed on Violent Soho’s discography. The label decided it would be prudent to re-record seven out of 10 songs with Gil Norton and rehash them as a self-titled debut.
After 18 months, the band were left with no money, and no label. Oddly, while the album didn’t do well enough Stateside, and despite it already having mostly been heard back home, the rehash still managed to get an ARIA nod. Go figure. It even surprised the band. Guitarist James Tidswell was on his way out of the door holding a Maccas application form when he got the call about it.
Looking back, it seemed like a misstep. Since returning to their Brisbane base, the band has released two more albums under the I Oh You label, Hungry Ghost and the new one, Waco, which climbed to No. 1. Both have been produced, recorded and mixed by Bryce Moorhead — picking up from where the band left off before the US adventure — and the band couldn’t be happier.
“It’s always kind of scared me to think of going anywhere else,” said singer and main songwriter Luke Boerdam about working with Moorhead. “I’ve been locked out of studios before for a ‘producers only’ mix session. ‘F**k you! Am I not part of the mixing process?’ Either we can do it together, or you can kick me out and we’ll send 400 emails back and forth. It’s stupid. I want to work with the engineer, I want to work with the producer. Bryce has an amazing amount of patience to listen to my bullshit for a few months and help mould it into something.”
Exactly what makes a fruitful, long-lasting artist/producer relationship is hard to pin down. It seems to be as contingent on the producer’s understanding of how the band wants to work as it is on results. Boerdam put it this way: “We tried other studios but didn’t get that same dynamic. We still got results and made records I’m proud of, but the songs I’m most proud of are ones recorded with Bryce. There’s something natural about how he produces audio which just sits well with our band. We’ll just sit and chip away at finding the guitar sound that slots into the song, without needing any processing.
“Sometimes I make the ugliest vocal sound, but the way Bryce produces makes it fit in naturally. When we recorded with Gil Norton he put this monstrosity of a mic in front of me which some company had sent him for a demo. I’m used to singing into something basic but I said I’d give it a go. I hated it. I remember asking Gil if we could put up room mics; a bit of delay left and right is what Bryce does. He just said we’d add it later. He wanted me in a vocal booth, and I was saying, ‘Can’t we record in an open room with high ceilings?’ Again, he just said we’d add the reverb later. I know that’s not right, I’ve done this a million times before! We’ve tried so many different techniques and we know what works.” [See Room for Vocals sidebar].
Moorhead currently works out of The Shed studios, but he also used to engineer at a studio called Zero Interference, where the name doubled as a policy aspiration. Moorhead said it stemmed from being in a band where “the person recording you is telling you how your music is supposed to sound. I just wanted to be someone who was more of a facilitator and help translate their ideas into something that was listenable.”
He’d heard exactly that sort of negative interference when Violent Soho came to him with demos recorded by another engineer who “obviously thought Violent Soho was this really heavy, tough semi-metal sounding band,” said Moorhead. “It was all scooped guitars, whereas this band’s the antithesis of scooped guitars. Midrange is good for these guys. It’s got to have rough edges, the performance has to be a little bit ragged and a translation of what they’d be like live.”
Boerdam says rather than trying to put his stamp on a song’s direction, Moorhead tries to filter Boerdam’s “blubbering on” about song influences and visions into something meaningful. “He won’t interfere with you or the creative process,” said Boerdam. “You’ll be in the middle of coming up with a new idea or song, and he’ll just watch you. But when he hears something that’s really off, he’ll tell you it’s not working.”
Luke Henery changes his bass amp set up for each song, but normally it will include a DI and an amp. “Sometimes two amp lines,” he said. “For Hungry Ghost I had a clean amp, a dirty amp, a DI line and a sub line running a separate 15-inch cab. This time it’s a bit more straight forward. I’m playing a bit cleaner on some of these songs using a slightly overdriven Fender Super Bassman. It still has heaps of headroom so I can get those low notes when I need them. I’ve been liking the MXR Bass DI, but we haven’t tracked with that yet. Our sound guy’s got an Avalon preamp and I often borrow that for my DI.
“Playing live, I normally use an ’80s Peavey T-20 P-bass-style guitar. Then I’ve got a Black Widow by the brand Acoustic, which is a bass made by Semie Moseley. It’s from the old Mosrite amp company and they only made two guitars — a six-string guitar version and a bass version. It’s got a rosewood fretboard and is a bit deeper and bit darker than my T-20, which is maple. I’ve also got a reissue Gibson Grabber, but it hasn’t made it on this record. It’s rad, you can slide the pickup towards the bridge to brighten it up or to the neck to make it a bit bassier.
“I like to keep my sound in the mids most of the time, then in big moments I drop real low to probably 40-50Hz. I like it a bit scooped in the low-mids so it’s not so muddy, but then underneath it is a real subby, hip-hop bass sound. I often tune my bass down a whole step.
“I love using the Rode K2 on bass,” said Moorhead. “Because it can handle around 150dB SPL before it distorts. It just seems like the best application for that mic, because the top end helps.”
Boerdam writes and demos all of Violent Soho’s songs at home. Hungry Ghost was mostly demoed in GarageBand, with an old Avid MBox plugged into a venerable Apple MacBook. In the last couple of years he’s upgraded the MacBook, and moved on from Garageband to Logic. The MBox has been replaced by an Apogee Duet interface, and he’s plumped for a Shure SM7B vocal mic.
“I usually plug guitars straight into the interface and program some s**t computer drums,” said Boerdam. “I use the EZ Drummer library, but always have the same four go-to rhythm patterns. The coolest part is you can just drag and drop parts and totally rearrange stuff.”
With Boerdam’s growing home studio, he admits he’s also gotten into the audio engineering side and dissecting how engineers and producers put colour into a band’s sound. He doesn’t have any desire to take over from Moorhead though. “I respect the dudes around me that have been doing this stuff for 20 to 30 years and recorded hundreds of bands,” he said. “Also, I’d rather be sitting in my room writing songs than tuning vocals for 14 hours in the studio.”
The band had toured some of the songs on Hungry Ghost for two years, whereas all of Waco’s tunes were fresh off Boerdam’s demos. “We usually find the longer we work on a song as a band, the better and easier it is to record. I never realised how beneficial touring was; having a year or two to mull it over, get an understanding of the song’s natural dynamics and have a vision for it. That said, as a songwriter I’ve learned what makes a Soho song. I’ll add certain elements and nuances that counterbalances not touring for a few years.”
That’s not to say he can necessarily churn out the hits on demand. Boerdam’s songwriting process has no fixed timeline. With the TV on in the background, he’ll riff on ideas, pulling old ones off the shelf and storing new ones away hoping one day they’ll find their companion pieces. “There’s no point rushing songwriting,” he said. “Writing to a due date does nothing but turn out horrible songs. It’s not a natural fit, it’s not the best a song can be. My one pet gripe is I can’t stand boring, long sections that have no purpose, yet go for ages.”
WHAT’S UNDER YOUR DRUMBRELLA
Moorhead: “Drum tuning is pretty important to me, particularly getting the snare’s long overtones in tune with the song. Here in the shed we’ve got the Drumbrella, so I’ll get a guitarist to play in time and I’ll hop on the drums and work out what note fits with what they’re playing.
“The Drumbella is a way of making the snare fatter. Depending on where you’ve got it tuned, it might be 180Hz or 200Hz — you can find the particular height where that resonant note in the snare is being reinforced.
“I’ve also got to check the toms aren’t being compromised by the Drumbrella. Sometimes the lower you go with the Drumbrella, the fatter everything sounds. Which can make putting mics in as overheads a bit tricky! With Violent Soho I tend to close-mic the cymbals which means I can get the Drumbrella lower if I need to. It seems to help bring definition to everything and help localise busy cymbal hits.
“I mostly run close mics and a couple of room mics, lately ribbons, back about four metres. I think one is an RCA 77DX. It’s the one that has a little knob you can turn that puts up a little shield behind the ribbon and turns it into cardioid. I run that as the mid mic with a little Reslo ribbon as a side for a mid-side configuration. That Reslo ribbon mic is insanely bassy, it largely rolls off the top end.
“I’ve usually got Beyer M201s top and bottom on his snare and Sennheiser MD421s on the top of the toms. I put a couple of AKG C414s on the cymbals, and we’ve got an old Rode Classic overhead that we put one of those RK7 capsules in and it sounds so much better.
“I’ve been using an AKG D112 in the kick drum hole and running a Shure Beta 98 around the other side on the batter head. It’s a little more modern-sounding, and gets that high click definition of the kick drum. When I’m mixing, I usually roll off a lot of the bottom end and either get the whole kit from the kick or just duck it when the snare’s being hit.”
Boerdam’s go-to guitar is a custom job made by Tim Brennan, who runs a shop called Tym Guitars in Brisbane. “I wanted a really dark Gibson sound — really simple and straight to the point — but I hate Les Paul Junior bodies and don’t like the necks,” said Boerdam. “I call it The Mongrel. It’s a Strat neck with a black Tele body and all Gibson hardware. This guy in Adelaide, Mick Brierley, makes these P90 throwback pickups and you can choose how hot he winds them. The only way I can get it to be clean is if I lightly pluck it.
“That goes through a Fender Twin on about six. I’ve never ever got a gain sound I’m happy with besides that guitar. It’s wound so hot, as soon as you hit an MXR Distortion Plus through an amp, it’s awesome.
“In the studio I’m using a Twin Deluxe for that super bright, a little bit glassy, clean sound, then I have a really dull amp to back it up in the chorus. That’s an early ’80s Marshall JCM800. I use two amps live, because I can’t stand it when you hit a distortion pedal in a chorus and it sucks all the volume. I used to have modded Boss DS1s with boosts in them that kind of worked. As soon as I started using two amps it was like I was in heaven.”
“We thought a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier was going to be a magic bullet and it wasn’t,” said Moorhead. “It was one of those things where you think a real expensive guitar or amp has got to be what all those other bands are using to get that magic sound. But it’s not.”
“I’ve also been mucking around with an ’80s Vox AC30,” continued Boerdam.
“The Vox has got a natural dark, broken-up sound. There’s a lot of drop-D chords in the choruses, so I’m overlaying higher-pitched power chords higher up the neck to colour the chorus. The Vox is really nailing that role, it’s poking right through the mix without any additional EQ.
“We usually end up sticking with one guitar panned left and right and then for a chorus only adding that shimmer up the neck. It’s an unspoken rule that it has to be different because you’re only muddying up a mix if you’re layering too much. We’re playing in that drop-D key a lot, so we can’t layer without it sounding like some sort of nu-metal band!
“The lighter we keep it, the better. It’s just making sure we dial in the right gain settings. I currently use the MXR Distortion Plus, but I’ve also got a Tym Guitar Special. I’ve always flirted with the classic Ibanez TS9 Tubescreamer. The saturation has something about it that serves a particular function. I could see myself jumping over at some point and cheating on my MXR.”
To record guitars, Moorhead usually opted for one Beyer M201. “I just put a mic up as close as I can, centred on the cone,” detailed Moorhead. “I know from testing speakers with a measurement mic that’s how you get a full bottom end without any notches from floor bounce. I know that’s not what a lot of other people would do, but I don’t want any notes to be lost. Then I also run a room mic and blend that in. I DI everything, especially dirty guitars, because that’s where the strum is.
“Mostly I just capture it the way I think it’s going to need to be in the mix. We spent a lot of time making sure the distorted sound is good and I put the mic in a good place using the right mic and preamp. We have eight home-built Neve 1290 preamps which are great for guitars and vocals.”
THE BEST VERSION OF YOU
The band spent two weeks in pre-production with Moorhead to finalise arrangements. “Unless we listen back and think that something’s not working,” said bass player, Luke Henery, “everything is normally sorted out in pre-production. Then it’s just about getting a good performance and making sure our tones are right.
“Bryce is known for bringing out the best version of a band. He gets you in the room, makes sure you’re tight, gets everything miked up and sounding awesome. Then he’ll make you keep playing it until you give him the best take. He’s got an amazing ear and he finds the little nuances in the way you’re playing, which sometimes get lost from demo to album. You played it exactly the same but for some reason it doesn’t have the same energy. Bryce finds out why and helps bring it out. It might be a little harmonic that you’re accidentally hitting because you’re holding your finger down on the G-string. It was a mistake, but he wants you to keep doing it.”
The band has figured out what works best for them in the studio, preferring to capture the bass and drums together, with Boerdam laying down a guitar guide track at the same time. They don’t record everything at once because they’ve found it’s usually “too hard to get proper isolation and to get the guitar tones the way we like it,” said Henery. “We’d always end up re-amping or something anyway. After tracking bass and drums it gives Luke time to sit there and work out his guitar parts. He really flourishes in the studio, like it’s what he was meant to do. We always give him space in the studio because typically something awesome happens.”
Moorhead concurred: “Luke Boerdam is the guy who’s got the vision for the song, so it’s important we have a lot of time for him to realise that vision.” Moorhead said early on they tried playing everything live, then overdubbing guitar parts again. These days, they prefer to cut to the chase. “The guys are so good at playing their instruments now that it’s just more efficient to get straight to it and get the drums and bass down, then have a lot more time to experiment with guitar parts and sounds.”
ROOM FOR VOCALS
When Boerdam was ‘young and naïve’, he used to hit the whisky before a vocal take. He thought it was a great idea, until the day he lost his voice. “These days I’ve got way more control in my voice,” said Boerdam. “Bryce and I are extremely particular about vocal takes; we do a lot. I wish I could say I did them in one take. Sometimes I have, but the reality is it’s a load of comping; getting the right delivery on each line and making sure we build up a really honest performance.
“One song I recorded 20 to 30 takes and just couldn’t get what I did on the demo. We literally had to pull over a demo vocal. There’s something about hitting record for a demo. You’re thinking, ‘well this is just a demo so who cares.’ With that ‘who cares’ your voice loosens up for an awesome vocal performance. Then when you’re in the studio it’s all opposite and rigid.
“The biggest thing is learning to relax. The more I try to nail it, the more I end up screwing it. It’s tough and really time-consuming. I like it when the vocals are done and I can work on the cool guitar stuff.”
Moorhead’s vocal recording technique, which Boerdam alluded to when working with Norton, is something Moorhead “used to do all the time in my old studio which had a big, wide room with pretty high ceilings. I didn’t learn under anyone or do any SAE courses. I didn’t have much gear in high school, just a four-track cassette recorder. I didn’t have a reverb unit, but I did have reverb in my room. It seems more authentic to actually use the sound of the room the artist is performing in.
“On a few songs I tried mixing in a really lush reverb on the vocals and there was something not quite right about it. As soon as we put that room sound on it changed, it was Violent Soho!
“I used to space Rode NT5s on the ground three or four metres away and a couple of metres apart. A lot of times I’ll delay those room mics by a really obvious amount like 60ms, so you get a bit of a slap-back delay.
“With Luke we’ve been using a Shure SM7, it doesn’t overload when he screams and the top end without the boost is perfect for his voice. He can tend to be a little bit sibilant.”
ANTHEM FOR A NEW SOUND
The first song released from Waco was the punky anthem Like Soda. Its pre-chorus build-up, I don’t mind/I don’t care/I’ll just say whatever, has shades of The Pixies and Blink 182 and instinctively feels like the lead up to a classic Drop-D chorus, balls deep in low-end extension. Instead, it crunches away in the midrange; all energy, less extension. It was a surprising choice to lead off with, even more so in retrospect, given the rest of the album is full of prototypical big Violent Soho choruses.
“Like Soda isn’t a full picture of what the record is like, especially from an audio engineering perspective,” said Boerdam. “But we’ve been a band for 10 years so we’d rather just drop music that we feel right about at the time. Rather than think about some larger marketing scheme or plan for the record.”
“That song was actually a bit of a nightmare to work out because of the tempo changes,” said Moorhead. “The demo tempo change was even greater and the guys were really attached to how it sounded, but it didn’t work. It just seemed like lots of little bits jumbled together. We tried heaps of things to get it to work while keeping the original intent of the song. There wasn’t any deliberate decision to change the way the bass sounded, it was just the puzzle the song presented. The verse was supposed to be the biggest, ballsiest part of the song.”
“We usually have a soft/loud dynamic where the pre-chorus cuts out then jumps to the chorus,” said Boerdam. “This feels more like it glides in. I struggled with that song from demos right through to mixing. There was a change of thinking required, like having to accept this chorus is more of a slow-paced chorus, not loud and abrasive with a bunch of ‘Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’ squeals. I realised it’s got some charm to it, when you hit that chorus it slows and makes sense. It doesn’t need that heavy Soho riff to drag it down, it just flows.”
It turned out to be an inspired decision, fans even going so far as to petition for it as a replacement national anthem. It also speaks to the place Violent Soho occupies — a full-time Australian band, with the backing of an independent label bent on trying to represent exactly who the band is. That is, they can release what they feel good about, not something that fits into a label’s marketing plan.
“When you’re younger and land your first record deal, you think things like that matter more than they actually do,” said Boerdam. “How much money the label is putting into marketing or whatever, especially back when the internet didn’t rule everything. Before you got to that stage, however, none of it mattered. The Golden Rule was to have good songs that are honest and people can connect with. The music always has to come first. It’s a lesson to keep learning again and again.”
DROPPING THE BIG CHORUS
Beyond Like Soda, Waco holds its fair share of powerful, low-end moments. The single Viceroy is deep and ballsy, Moorhead talks about how he keeps those moments powerful without losing punch. “In a lot of the heavy parts of their songs, there’ll be a really constant kick drum which can be quite tricky,” said Moorhead. “It’s trying to control the decay of that kick drum and make it punchy enough that it’s not just flapping around and taking away space from the bass guitar.
“I mix all in-the-box using UAD plug-ins. I usually send kick from an AKG D112 and Beyer M88 to a group that’s got the legacy UAD Fairchild plug-in on it. It has this little knob down the bottom you can turn that seems to affect the attack of it. I back that off a little bit and it just seems perfect for making each kick poke through. Getting that kick drum hitting the right place is important.
“I’ll also bus all the instruments to a group and have all the vocals going to the master bus, then I’ll put a parallel compressor on that instrument group. When it comes up to a heavy part of the song, I’ll automate the uncompressed bus down a little and push up the compressed bus so it jumps and starts pumping a bit, but the vocals don’t get modulated by the compressor.”
While Moorhead and Violent Soho know how to create powerful punk rock, as Like Soda shows, there are plenty of diverse moments on Waco that make it more than a couple of singles. Waco has already hit No. 1 on the ARIA album charts, numbers to support the feeling this is an Aussie album well worth listening to. “To be honest,” signed off Henery, “they’re songs I’ll always be proud of. Undoubtedly, I’ll end up playing house parties around Australia. Makes no difference to me man, as long as I can still turn my amp up!”